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'We need Mother Nature to help': Red Lake evacuation likely as forest fires rage on in northwestern Ontario

Jul 20, 2021 06:01AM ● By Editor
More than 100 forest fires were burning in northwestern Ontario as of Monday morning. Photo: Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter

From CBC News · Thunder Bay - July 19, 2021 

A full evacuation of the municipality of Red Lake due to forest fires remains likely, the mayor said Monday, following news Friday that members of Deer Lake First Nation would be fully evacuating, and residents of two other First Nations were already leaving their communities.

More than 100 fires were reported in the region Monday morning.

"There's three significant large fires to the west of our community," Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota told CBC News.

They are:

  • Kenora Fire 51, approximately 100,000 hectares.
  • Red Lake Fire 77, at 20,000 hectares large.
  • Red Lake Fire 16, at 120,000 hectares.

"All of these are to the north, south and west of our community," said Mota. "There's a projection that these three fires are going to connect at some point, creating a fire well over 200,000 hectares."

Red Lake 77 is the closest to the municipality, burning about 20 kilometres north of the hamlet community of Madsen.

"We're closely monitoring all the fires, but especially Red Lake Fire 77," which is the closest, said Mota. "As that fire encroaches that community, at some point we believe an evacuation will be likely.

"But this fire is very weather dependent. It moves around quite a bit depending on the wind direction."

On Friday, the Ontario Ministry of the Solicitor General confirmed that Deer Lake First Nation is fully evacuating at the request of the community leadership, with Red Lake 51 burning about 26 kilometres west of the community.

Deer Lake had already been partially evacuated, with vulnerable residents being hosted in other communities in Ontario, including Thunder Bay, Cochrane and Cornwall.

As well, Poplar Hill First Nation and Pikangikum First Nation began evacuating vulnerable populations early last week to host communities across the province, before beginning community-wide evacuations as of Wednesday.

Wind a concern

Mota said the Red Lake area saw heavy thunderstorms overnight Sunday that led to lightning strikes. In addition, wind out of the southwest was projected, which he said will "be blowing [Red Lake 77] towards that Madsen area."

"We need Mother Nature to help us out here," he said. "We're praying for east winds so the fire blows back into itself and much-needed rain."

About 750 people have left the community on their own accord, Mota said, as Red Lake sees heavy smoke and falling ash.

"People are wanting answers one way or the other. But the problem we're facing is that the fire remains massive, and as it encroaches the community, we will call an evacuation order as it gets closer."

The province's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services (AFFES) agency said it had confirmed five new fires in the region on Sunday, but more reports still needed to be investigated.

Other fires of note include:

  • Red Lake 65, about 16,000 hectares and not under control, burning about seven kilometres northwest of Poplar Hill First Nation. AFFES said Monday the fire is too aggressive to deploy ground crews. An evacuation of the community has been co-ordinated by the province.
  • Red Lake 51, burning about 24 kilometres west of Deer Lake First Nation, about 48,700 hectares, and not under control. AFFES said the fire is also too aggressive for ground crew deployment, and an evacuation of the community has been co-ordinated by the province.
  • Kenora 51, now about 114,000 hectares and not under control, located inside Woodland Caribou Provincial Park.

Fire activity has led to restrictions being put in place in the Red Lake and Kenora areas, with access to several roads and lakes being prohibited.

Details of the orders can be found on Ontario's forest fire web page.

Restricted zone in effect

A restricted fire zone remains in effect in the Kenora, Fort Frances, Dryden and Thunder Bay districts, and portions of the Sioux Lookout, Red Lake, and Nipigon districts. Outdoor burning is prohibited in those areas.

The province issued an emergency order for northwestern Ontario due to forest fire activity last week.

The order allows the province to take special measures, such as implementing travel or access restrictions, "to ensure the safety of people and the protection of critical property."

On Monday, the province announced it's implementing restrictions on higher-risk forestry operations in northwestern Ontario that have the potential to cause sparks and ignite fires. Those operations include the use of mechanized equipment and power saws to harvest or process wood, as well as welding, torching and grinding.

"The seriousness of forest fires that are blanketing our northwest makes restricting industrial operations that could cause new fires necessary to protect public safety, which is our top priority," Greg Rickford, minister of northern development, mines, natural resources and forestry, said in a statement issued Monday.

"We did not take this action lightly, and we appreciate our industry partners coming together to support the community and the work of our wildland firefighters."

The restrictions will remain in place until further notice, the province said.

Environment Canada on Monday issued heat warnings for several parts of northwestern Ontario, including the Thunder Bay, Dryden, Ignace, Fort Frances, and Kenora areas.

Dryden, Ignace, and Kenora are also under severe thunderstorm warnings as of Monday morning.

The agency has also issued air quality statements due to forest fire smoke for most of the region.

To see the original report and stay abreast of Northwestern Ontario wildfires, follow this link to the CBC Thunder Bay website.

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