Lack of host communities hampering Pikangikum evacuation, chief says

Evacuation by land and water of an Indigenous community threatened by a forest fire in northern Ontario has been put on hold because of a lack of places to send the residents, its chief said on Wednesday.

The evacuation of Pikangikum First Nation was now expected to resume on Thursday, as crews battled a fire burning about six kilometres to the southwest.

The Ontario government said it was reaching out to mayors across the province to ask them to host rest of Pikangikum’s 3,800 residents.

“There is an urgent need for host communities to provide a safe haven for evacuees during this difficult time,” said Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Mathew Hoppe, commander of Pikangikum’s emergency operations centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., said the recent spell of rain has helped his organization win some time.

“It’s looking better than it was a couple days ago, when there was very thick smoke in the community and it had hampered air operations,” Hoppe said. “What we’re looking at right now is a better situation going forward for the next few days to give us a chance to get ahead of the game.”

Smoke inhalation was a serious issue on Tuesday, prompting Environment Canada to issue a special air quality alert, but Hoppe said some of the smoke had lifted, making it easier to airlift residents out of Pikangikum.

Hoppe said Thunder Bay was hosting 600 evacuees in hotels, and was looking at the logistics of taking in more — regardless of whether Pikangikum can find other hosts.

“There’s a calmness in the community in terms of recognizing the weather’s a bit nicer, but the threat and the challenge we have is working day to day,” he said. “We’re still planning a full evacuation, maintaining the goal of pulling all of the people out.”

At least 72 firefighters were working on the blaze, said Jolanta Kowalski, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Natural Resources.

For several days, residents have been leaving on military flights, boats and buses for communities in northern Ontario.

Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap said six buses and 10 boats were called off on Wednesday, but the aim was still to airlift 300 people out.

Residents hoping to leave Pikangikum by driving were running out of options.

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