A planeload of vulnerable community members from Eabametoong First Nation is scheduled to arrive 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 there.
The Dash 8 aircraft scheduled to transport 37 people landed in the community, located about 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, just before 10 a.m. ET on Wednesday, Chief Harvey Yesno told CBC News.
It’s the first of six flights scheduled to leave the community Wednesday, Yesno said, each carrying 37 to 47 community members bound for either Thunder Bay or Timmins, Ont.
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.
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 — by lunch time.
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.”
The fire, known as Red Lake 49, has grown to 750 hectares in size and is fuelled by strong westerly winds and dry conditions, said Chris Marchand, a fire information officer with Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services.
Crews have been battling the fire with water bombers, helicopters and heavy equipment on the ground, attempting to clear fuel to stop the fire in its tracks, Marchand said. They are hoping that Wednesday’s weather forecast calling for lighter winds will aid their efforts to limit the fire’s spread toward Red Lake and the highway, Marchand said.
Currently, the fire is burning about three kilometres south of Red Lake and three kilometres west of the highway.
It is travelling from west to east, moving away from the community of Madsen, where it was first reported Sunday afternoon, and toward the highway.
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, Marchand said, but it is affecting air quality in the region.
Crews are fighting the fire by air, but it’s been a challenge, Marchand said.
“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.”