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Northern Ontario First Nation declares state of emergency amid nearby wildfires

Pikangikum First Nation declared a state of emergency amid nearby wildfires.
Pikangikum First Nation declared a state of emergency amid nearby wildfires. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

A northern Ontario First Nation was attempting to evacuate hundreds of residents Thursday due to smoke from a nearby wildfire.

Pikangikum First Nation, a remote fly-in reserve 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., has declared a state of emergency, according to provincial and Indigenous officials.

A spokeswoman for the province’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said crews are battling a 400-hectare blaze east of the community.

Jolanta Kowalski said the ministry expects to have up to a dozen crews attacking the flames by the end of the day.

READ MORE: 5 dead after house fire in northwestern Ontario First Nation

Meanwhile, the leader of an organization that represents 49 First Nations in northwestern Ontario said he’s “beyond frustration” at the pace of the government’s response to the blaze.

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Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said not a single military plane had arrived in Pikangikum by early Thursday afternoon.

“We’ve been at this since yesterday evening … speaking with various government officials, provincially, federally, to begin mobilizing the manpower that’s needed to do this evacuation,” Fiddler said in a phone interview from Thunder Bay.

“It’s frustrating … knowing the scope of the emergency, the number of people that need to be moved to other centres, and just the time – the minutes are ticking by, the hours are ticking by to begin this work.”

READ MORE: Northwestern Ontario First Nation declares emergency after 5 fire deaths

Greg Rickford, Ontario’s minister of Indigenous affairs, said about 1,600 residents of the community have been identified as vulnerable, out of an on-reserve population of roughly 2,300.

He and Fiddler said the priority is get those people out first.

David Lavallee, a spokesman for the Royal Canadian Air Force, said two CC-130 Hercules aircraft have been tasked with airlifting people from the community.

“Those two aircraft are going to help move people from Pikangikum to Thunder Bay,” he said. “What the province has asked us to do today is to evacuate 250 people.”

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Lavallee said two military Chinook transport helicopters were being positioned at Red Lake, Ont., in case they are needed.

“We will wait and see what tomorrow brings.”

Lavallee said Canadian Rangers were also helping people in Pikangikum.

READ MORE: UCP minister answers questions about Indigenous land acknowledgments in Alberta

Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford Thursday to commit to providing Pikangikum with whatever help it needs.

“Yesterday, I spoke with Chief Amanda Sainnawap about the need for more planes to get people out of the community,” Horwath said in a statement. “The Chief expressed her concern that smoke from the approaching fires may soon hinder the visibility of aircraft to land.”

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Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said the federal government is working with the Ontario government to help the community.

“The Government Operations Centre has staff working to co-ordinate the federal response to the situation in Ontario,” Goodale said in a release.

“Canadians can be assured that all levels of government are working seamlessly together to deliver the required help.”

READ MORE: Five youth arrested for arson; crews battle nearby forest fire in Pauingassi First Nation

The City of Thunder Bay said it’s preparing to receive about 300 evacuees from Pikangikum over the next 48 hours. It said in a statement that Thunder Bay will also serve as a “transportation hub” to help move evacuees to other host communities across the province.

Kowalski, the ministry spokesperson, said the fire has been burning to the southeast, away from the community so far, although a wind shift could change that.

“It all depends on the wind,” she said. “Clear weather can make fighting a fire slightly more challenging.”

READ MORE: Indigenous Services Minister and Grassy Narrows chief discuss proposed agreement, medical facility

Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said the organization will do what it can to ensure the community gets the help it needs.

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“My thoughts are with the people in Pikangikum First Nation who are facing a serious threat from wildfires and are being forced to evacuate,” he said. “I hope everyone remains safe and with family.”

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– With files from Daina Goldfinger