Northern Ontario fire evacuees beginning to return home

Ontario wildfire evacuees sit outside University of Regina dorm rooms on July 12, 2019. File / Global News

The wildfire situation that forced the evacuation of hundreds of Pikangikum First Nation residents is improving, according to Saskatchewan’s fire commissioner.

A handful of evacuees being housed in Regina are expected to return home over the next few days. Fire commissioner Duane McKay said a plane with around 35 evacuees has left Regina for northern Ontario. Three or four more flights are expected to take place in the next day or two, each carrying 30 to 40 people.

“This suits us very well in the sense that our planning for the eventual return of evacuees is well underway,” McKay said.

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McKay said there has been significant rainfall in the fire zone, and the wind direction has shifted, carrying smoke away from the remote community.

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There is no general repatriation order yet for all the evacuees. McKay said they are taking their cues from the community on who is able to return home.

Pikangikum’s water treatment is currently offline following a power surge.

“Repairs have been identified and are underway. We expect that will be back in full operation by later [Wednesday] or first thing in the morning,” McKay explained.

“It continues to be able to operate, but it’s done manually as opposed to automated systems, so we’re encouraged by that as well.”

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In the meantime, potable water is being trucked in for those still in the community.

“There are about 2,000 people in the community at this particular point that are being supported that way,” McKay said.

Not all of the evacuees live in the First Nation. Some are from Thunder Bay and other parts of northern Ontario, according to McKay.

Once the planned flights leave, there will still be 200 to 300 evacuees staying at the University of Regina residences, according to Saskatchewan’s social services ministry.

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A powwow is being planned, among other activities to help keep evacuees occupied as they wait to return home.

Premier Scott Moe announced Saskatchewan would be able to take up to 2,000 evacuees during last week’s annual Council of the Federation meeting.

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