A forest fire threatening a First Nation in northwestern Ontario has grown in size, officials said Thursday as more flights were planned to airlift residents out of the community.
Members of Pikangikum First Nation have been leaving their homes since a full evacuation was ordered on Monday, although departures via buses and boats were put on hold Wednesday because of a lack of places to send evacuees. Saskatchewan has since said it would take in up to 2,000 displaced residents.
The Ministry of Natural Resources said the fire — dubbed Red Lake Fire 39 — has now grown to more than 507 square kilometres in size, which is larger than Quebec City.
The blaze was burning six kilometres southwest of Pikangikum, on the opposite side of a lake. Crews were setting up hose lines on the east and northwest sides of the fire, and sprinklers have been installed southwest of the community, the ministry said.
Spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski said there are 84 firefighters now working on the fire, but that number was expected to rise. "With large fires like Red Lake 39, even a small amount of growth along the perimeter will have a significant impact on size," she said.
The Canadian Armed Forces said that as of Thursday morning, around 1,350 of Pikangikum's 3,800 residents had been airlifted out of the community, with more flights scheduled for later in the day.
Evacuations by land and water routes remained on hold, said Mathew Hoppe, commander of Pikangikum's emergency operations centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., explaining that there were still "logistical issues" to sort out.
"There's still challenges as far as I know, about host community access when we put people on buses," he said. "We want to minimize having people sit on buses for 10 or 12 hours."
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation – which represents 49 First Nations across Northern Ontario – said Saskatchewan's offer to host evacuees was nonetheless a "relief."
"There's been so much pressure on the leadership of Pikangikum, on some of the front-liner works who have been at this for many days now, to be able to tell the evacuees where they're going to be going," Fiddler said Thursday.
"It alleviates a lot of the pressure that centres in the northwest part of the province have been feeling with the request to accommodate more evacuees."
Meanwhile, Red Lake Fire 23, a forest fire raging eight kilometres south of the community of Keewaywin, has grown to 926 square kilometres — nearly twice the size of the fire threatening Pikangikum.
Keewaywin First Nation completed a full evacuation of its roughly 450 residents last week who were relocated to Sioux Lookout and Timmins.