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Families from the Pikangikum First Nation line up to register as evacuees at the Eenchokay Birchstick school on Wednesday, July 10, 2019. Half of the community's roughly 4,000 residents have now been evacuated due to forest fire, with more to leave in coming days.Colin Freeze/The Globe and Mail

With a forest fire raging only kilometres away from Pikangikum First Nation in Northern Ontario, families with small children clustered at a school Wednesday to register as evacuees and wait to be flown out.

The continuing exodus marks the second time that forest fires have forced an evacuation of Pikangikum in just more than a month. While residents have been fleeing since the weekend, some are reluctant to go, as recent rains and winds have made the fire, which began on July 1, less of an immediate threat. Yet community leaders see this turn of events as more of a respite than a reprieve.

“It’s going to flare up again because this fire is massive,” Chief Amanda Sainnawap said in an interview at the makeshift command post set up at the Eenchokay Birchstick School in the community.

Her most pressing problem at the moment is finding cities and towns that will take in the residents of Pikangikum, which has a population of around 4,000 people. A full evacuation was ordered on Sunday night.

“I think we have evacuated about half of our community members, but there’s a lack of host communities in Ontario, so now we’re planning to look outside the province, as far away as Saskatchewan,” she said. “Can you imagine sending people to Saskatchewan? People who hardly leave the reserve? … English is not their first language.”

Government officials who are continuing to evacuate the community say they are struggling to get everyone out – especially since many residents have only recently returned to Pikangikum after fleeing another forest fire in early June.

“Some of them flat out refuse,” said Buster Kurahara, who serves as a sergeant with the Canadian Rangers. “Some won’t open the door. We try to go back and change their minds.”

Thunder Bay, the largest city in Northern Ontario, had said it could host 400 evacuees and by Wednesday announced that it was near capacity already. Other Pikangikum residents were being moved to Lac Seul First Nation, Sioux Lookout, Kapuskasing, Smooth Rock Falls, Hearst and Dryden.

“We’re actively recruiting more hosts,” said Brent Ross, a spokesman at the Ministry of the Solicitor-General.

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A child evacuee from the Pikangikum First Nation looks out of a school bus being driven to a local landing strip prior to boarding a plane.Colin Freeze/The Globe and Mail

Saskatchewan has agreed to help, offering to host up to 2,000 evacuees, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced later on Wednesday.

“Extensive outreach has happened to our municipal partners and many have agreed to step up and help evacuees,” the Premier said in a statement. “We are committed to addressing any questions or concerns municipalities may have, but we urge them to move quickly to help those affected.”

The latest conflagration threatening Pikangikum, Red Fire Number 39, was six kilometres southwest of the reserve, on the opposite side of Pikangikum Lake, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).

While there has been substantial rainfall, Jonathan Scott, an MNRF Fire Information Officer, said Red Fire Number 39 still covered 50,755 hectares – an area larger than the Island of Montreal.

Another blaze, Red Lake Fire Number 23, nearly twice the size of the one threatening Pikangikum, had forced the evacuation of another First Nations community, Keewaywin, whose members were relocated to Sioux Lookout and Timmins.

Officials did not give an exact number of evacuees, but Keewaywin has 477 registered on-reserve members.

The Ontario government has requested federal assistance and a CC-130J Hercules military transport plane was dispatched from Winnipeg to begin airlifting residents on Sunday, with assistance from 23 Canadian Rangers.

By Wednesday morning, the Royal Canadian Air Force had relocated 261 people, Lieutenant Nadine Abou Rjeily said. Two more flights were scheduled for Wednesday evening, with each flight able to carry about 100 people.

Other residents had left on their own, taking a 20-minute boat ride to a spot known as Taxi Bay, where buses took them on a road leading to Red Lake, about 90 kilometres south.

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