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Fires wreak havoc in northwestern Ontario

Friday July 29, 2011

As increasing numbers of Nishnawbe Aski Nation members are evacuated from their communities due to forest fires, Grand Chief Stan Beardy called for a state of emergency.

“I am calling on the Government of Canada to mobilize all available resources, including the Armed Forces, to ensure that enough aircraft are avail- able to evacuate First Nations at a moment’s notice,” Beardy said July 19. “I am also ask- ing the Province of Ontario to declare a state of emergency so that all necessary resources can be directed to protect the health and safety of the residents of these communities.”

Beardy said many remote First Nations under imminent threat from these fires rely com- pletely on air transportation.

“There is a very real danger that heavy smoke from these fires could prevent aircraft from landing, making it impossible to get people out safely if an evac- uation is ordered,” Beardy said.

Keewaywin was evacuated July 17-18 due to a threat from Red Lake Fire Number 82, located about 10 kilometres southwest of the community of about 500 on-reserve band members.

One hundred and ninety- seven community members were sent to Greenstone July 17 in a stage one evacuation of Elders, people with health issues and young children. Another 150 were evacuated July 18 to Greenstone. The rest of the community was evacuated later that day.

Four other Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities were evacuated as of July 19 due to smoky conditions from forest fires across northwestern Ontario and another community was on standby for evacuation.
“It’s the worst,” said North Spirit Lake councillor Jake Kakekagumick about this year’s forest fire conditions. “There are fires all around us.”

North Spirit Lake is particularly concerned about a forest fire located about six kilometres north of the community.

“The fire is really close (to) here,” Kakekagumick said July 18. “There’s five houses on that side and it’s pretty close. It’s burning towards us.”

Kakekagumick said community members could actually see flames leaping above the trees July 16-17 before Ministry of Natural Resources water bombers fought the flames.

“Yesterday or the day before it was really big,” Kakekagumick said. “You could see the flames coming out.”

Sandy Lake Chief Adam Fiddler said there is rarely any relief from smoke blowing into the community when forest fires are burning in most directions.

“The only direction where we don’t have heavy smoke coming from is the northeast,” Fiddler said July 18. “We were lucky today – we have a northeast wind so the smoke is not as bad today. But we know the wind is going to change and once the wind changes to westerly or southwesterly, which is sup- posed to happen tomorrow, it is going to be really thick again.”
Fiddler said the smoke was so thick July 17 that the regular medivac plane couldn’t land to pick up a patient; the patient had to be medicaved out by a Hercules aircraft.

“Before we had the Hercules come in, we had people who left on their own as soon as they could yesterday,” Fiddler said. “But the high-risk people, the people on oxygen and (with) real breathing problems, they have gone out this morning.”

Fiddler said about 700 community members were being evacuated in the community’s phase-one evacuation.

About 750 Elders, people with health issues and young children were evacuated from Sandy Lake July 18, about 160 from North Spirit Lake July 18, about 281 from Eabametoong July 17 and about 250 from Cat Lake July 14-15. About 230 community members in King- fisher were on standby July 19.

In addition to their July 17 phase-one evacuation, Eabametoong Chief Harry Papah said his community is considering a phase two evacuation of the about 1,000 remaining community members due to thick smoke from forest fires to the west of the community.

“It was really thick here – you couldn’t really see across the lake,” Papah said. “The winds will probably be changing from the west again tomorrow, so we are going to remain on standby for phase two, if it has to be.”

Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy said there is a potential of up to 5,000 people eventually being evacuated from up to 14 communities due to forest fires and smoke conditions.

“As of yesterday they had 90 fires in the Sioux Lookout district,” Beardy said July 18, noting there were 25 new fires. “It is really hot, dry windy conditions and it is continuing.”
Beardy was also concerned about the power outages due to the burned power transmission line to Cat Lake, Slate Falls, Mishkeegogamang, Pickle Lake and Musselwhite Mine.

“It affects the whole operation of each community when there is no power,” Beardy said. “It affects the food, their clinic and everything else so it is a very dangerous situation.”

NAN put out a call July 19 to the cities and municipalities in northwestern Ontario to continue to assist by providing emergency shelters for up to 5,000 community members who could be forced to flee their homes this week.

A number of host communities have already received or are preparing to receive evacuees, including Thunder Bay, Winni- peg, Fort Frances, Dryden, Geraldton and Red Lake.

“We recognize that the high instance of forest fires in northern Ontario is putting a tremendous strain on emergency services but we have to ensure that adequate resources are available to evacuate all residents of communities under immediate threat,” Beardy said. “The danger is very real, and we need assurances that Elders, young children and people with respiratory problems will be able to be evacuated before the situation worsens.”

Cat Lake issued a press release July 14 stating Hydro One refused to connect and activate the diesel generation station in the community, which was used during the last power outage due to another forest fire.

“All they need is one, two, three connections,” said Cat Lake Chief Matthew Keewaykapow July 15. “Three places to connect it and disconnect it at the main power source towards the east at the Northern Store and you can have power.”

Cat Lake was concerned about the effects of being with- out an electrical supply, including sewers backing up, the water system working at a mini- mum, perishable foods running out and issues with cooking foods and lighting homes with candles.

Enza Cancilla, manager of public affairs with Hydro One, said Hydro One is talking with Cat Lake about sending in a four-person crew to assess the condition of the diesel generation station.

“We’re still in discussions with the community so we are not actualizing that plan to go in and assess the station until we have had more discussions with the community,” Cancilla said July 19.

Nancy Shaddick, a spokes-woman with Hydro One, said July 18 that the four-person crew was going to look at whether there is an ability to restart the station and what
timelines would be required to do so.

Daniele Gauvin, another spokeswoman with Hydro One, said Hydro One had originally decided the quickest approach to get power back to all five communities was to rebuild the line.
“It takes several days to refurbish (the diesel generation station), to get it up and running,” Gauvin said July 15. “Since the power will be back on by Mon- day (July 18), it was decided to have everyone re-energized at once was the best approach, rather than do a short-term approach which would take until Monday anyway.”

Although power was restored on the evening of July 15, the wind shifted and the forest fire burned the transmission line again July 17 causing another power outage. Hydro One is currently working with the MNR to determine when it is safe to access the site and repair the transmission line again.

The MNR estimated in their July 18 Forest Fire Situation Update that up to six kilometres of the transmission line have been affected by the forest fire, but smoky conditions prevented a good assessment of the transmission line.

Hydro One brought in more than 80 lines staff and other support personnel to rebuild more than 80 hydro poles originally destroyed by the fire July 10-11. The damage was
contained along a 13-kilometre section of the transmission line, including 40 structures destroyed by the fire and 40 seriously damaged.

While snow conditions were normal this past winter, Kakekagumick said conditions have been dry since then. “It’s all dry now,” Kakekagumick said. “That’s probably why the thunderstorms are making those fires.”

Instead of rain, ashes from the forest fires have been falling to the ground in many communities.

“We had flakes falling as though it were snowing, that was yesterday as well as Saturday (July 16),” Fiddler said, noting people couldn’t see across the river. “It’s also a concern because that is how the fire spreads — with the sparks.”

The smoky conditions have also resulted in complaints about sore throats and chest pains.
“It’s OK when it’s kind of windy but in the evening when the wind dies down, that is when the smoke comes down,” Keewaykapow said.

Other communities have faces similar ordeals this summer. Deer Lake was evacuated July 7 due to smoke conditions, with evacuees returning home July 13-15.

Mishkeegogamang was evacuated June 22 due to a nearby forest fire.

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