Community members from Eabametoong First Nation arrived in Thunder Bay, Ont., on Wednesday afternoon, as a forest fire approximately 53 kilometres southwest of the Indigenous community continues to blow smoke and ash into the air.
The first, of what was expected to be five planes to leave on Wednesday, landed in the community, located about 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, just before 10 a.m. ET, Chief Harvey Yesno told CBC News.
Yesno and Council of Eabametoong declared a forest fire and smoke emergency on Tuesday evening, with concerns of the smoke affecting the health and safety of residents.
Elders, children, and other “medical priority residents” were among the people evacuated starting Wednesday morning.
Thunder Bay has committed to hosting 200 evacuees from the community, said Thunder Bay’s acting fire chief Greg Hankkio.
Yesno is hoping to remove about 400 vulnerable members of the community in total, he said.
Fire near Eabametoong ‘difficult to knock down’
The 3,300-hectare fire known as Nipigon 45, which has been burning approximately 53 kilometres southwest of Eabametoong since Sunday, is not a direct threat to the community’s buildings or infrastructure, but it is affecting air quality in the region.
Crews are fighting the fire by air, but it’s been a challenge, said Chris Marchand, a fire information officer with Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services.
“The fire behaviour in that particular area has been quite intense,” he said. “The power and the strength and momentum of that fire has proven difficult to knock down.”
Red Lake residents also forced to flee
Eabametoong First Nation is the second community in northwestern Ontario that has had to evacuate this week due to forest fire activity in the region.
On Monday night, officials ordered the evacuation of the town of Red Lake, a municipality of more than 4,000 people about 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, and by Tuesday morning it was urging residents to leave immediately, saying the fire could compromise Highway 105 — the main route in and out of the community.
Christopher Renaud, who fled the neighbouring community of Madsen on Monday night, said driving down the highway was scary.
“I’ve never witnessed anything like that, and I hope I don’t ever again,” he said. “On either side of us was just carnage and flames and … a lot of heat and a lot of smoke.”
Thunder Bay committed to hosting 400 to 450 evacuees from Red Lake, Hankkio said, but as of Wednesday morning, only about 54 had arrived in the city.
“I’m not quite sure … why the numbers were that low compared to what they asked,” Hankkio said. “The people … they may have just left the municipality on their own or decided to stay behind in the community.”