Forest fires have forced more than 3,000 people in Northern Ontario to evacuate their homes and thousands more may have to do the same as crews battle growing blazes in the region; however, the province has not declared a state of emergency.
Ontario’s Solicitor-General, Sylvia Jones, and Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry Minister Greg Rickford said Monday that the province will continue to monitor the situation as 151 fires threaten remote northern communities.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Rickford stopped short of declaring a state of emergency, despite calls from First Nations leaders and the members of the opposition party who have expressed Ontario is unprepared to deal with the escalating fires and potential scale of evacuations.
A total of 3,143 people have been evacuated from the fly-in communities of Poplar Hill, Pikangikum, Cat Lake, Deer Lake and North Spirit Lake as a precautionary measure. Based on estimated population totals, another 5,935 could be evacuated should the threat of smoke and fire worsen.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Rickford said the province is using all available land and aerial equipment to protect people and property from wildfires in the region while working with municipal leaders to assess their capacity to host evacuees.
They added that Ontario has 600 trained wildland firefighters on duty, including 100 firefighters from Mexico and an additional 300 who were on mandatory days off or ready for deployment. More than 100 aircrafts, including 74 helicopters and 14 waterbombers, are also being used.
The total size of the fires in the northern region so far this season is triple the province’s 10-year average. More than 520,000 hectares have burned in 902 reported fires in Ontario already this year, including a fire more than 120,000 hectares approximately 36 kilometres southwest of Pikangikum and a 17,000 hectare fire just six kilometres from Poplar Hill First Nation. In 2020, the province reported 457 fires covering 6,416 hectares.
In a letter dated July 12 requesting assistance from the province and federal governments, Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler said that “Ontario’s host site capacity can accommodate no more than 2,000 people” and urged the province to declare a state of emergency.
In a second letter dated July 21, Mr. Fiddler again expressed concern over the province’s capacity to protect the communities from the fires and provide appropriate supports for the evacuees in host communities.
NDP MPPs Sol Mamakwa and Judith Monteith-Farrell also wrote to Premier Doug Ford last week urging him to take immediate action to protect the northern communities and people.
Ms. Jones and Mr. Rickford said the province is working closely with the federal government, First Nations and municipalities to ensure all necessary resources are deployed. A provincial state of emergency could be called by the Lieutenant-Governor in Council or the Premier if it’s determined that resources can’t be relied upon or aren’t effective to address the crisis.
“As this year’s wildfire season continues, we continue to support communities in the north, and remain ready to provide all necessary additional support as required,” a joint statement from Ms. Jones and Mr. Rickford said.
There are currently 16 host communities accommodating the evacuees between Kenora and the Peel Region. The province said military bases and empty quarantine hotels in Southern Ontario are being considered in the event of more evacuations.
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