An organization representing 49 First Nations in northern Ontario is urging the province to declare a state of emergency over wildfires that it says are threatening several remote communities.
The Nishnawbe Aski Nation said the declaration is needed to trigger an immediate response to the situation, including aircraft and watercraft for evacuations.
“This situation is worsening by the hour,” NAN Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said in a statement, adding that full-scale evacuations of several communities may be needed if the wildfires grow significantly.
Since the weekend, hundreds of residents of Poplar Hill First Nation and Deer Lake First Nation have been evacuated to Thunder Bay, Ont., and other communities due to the threat posed by two different wildfires.
Thunder Bay is hosting 174 residents from Deer Lake First Nation, who evacuated on Monday, and 357 evacuees from Poplar Hill First Nation who arrived over the weekend, the city’s fire chief, Greg Hankkio, said in an interview Tuesday.
“The first steps are just to make them as comfortable as we can,” Hankkio said, noting that the evacuations went smoothly. Evacuees will be staying in hotels in the city where they’ll be provided food, medical help and other necessary resources, he said.
“It’s a stressful, challenging time for the people coming out of their community, so we’ll do our best to take care of them,” he said.
Other residents from those communities are being evacuated to different towns and cities such as Kapuskasing, Cochrane and Cornwall.
The Ontario government said about 65 vulnerable residents of Pikangikum First Nation have also self-evacuated as a precaution.
Fiddler said many more residents of those three communities still need to be evacuated, while the communities of Bearskin Lake, Sachigo Lake and North Spirit Lake are on high alert for potential evacuation.
“This is quickly becoming a NAN-wide emergency and requires an immediate, co-ordinated response,” said Fiddler.
A spokesman for Solicitor General Sylvia Jones said she has been in contact with Fiddler “to reiterate our commitment to take all required action to keep all Ontarians safe from these fires.”
“Our top priority is the health and wellbeing of individuals currently being impacted by wildfires in the northern part of our province,” said Stephen Warner.
He added that provincial personnel continue to fight multiple wildfires with ground crews and water bombers and keep the community informed of the wildfire situation.
“As this situation develops we remain ready to provide all support necessary, alongside our federal partners, to protect the health and wellbeing of individuals currently being impacted by wildfires in the northern part of our province,” Warner said.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said there are currently over 70 forest fires across northwestern Ontario.
Of these, 16 were new as of late Monday, including fires in the Red Lake District and Kenora, said ministry spokesman Jonathan Scott.
“The last several days, the fire behaviors have been very extreme,” said Scott, adding that rain in the northwestern Ontario area on Monday night and Tuesday has helped the situation to an extent.
Fiddler said many of those fires are within kilometres of First Nations communities that can only be accessed by air or water.
“Lives are at stake, there is no time to waste,” he said.