Evacuation efforts in Pikangikum First Nation are ramping up as a wildfire threatening the northern Ontario community gains strength and cripples local telecom services.
Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities across northern Ontario, says he’s hoping at least 1,200 people will be airlifted from the community by end of day Friday.
He says a forest fire burning near the eastern edge of the fly-in community has grown in the past 24 hours and has damaged the broadband communications line running through the area, knocking out all phone and internet service.
Fiddler says just over 200 people on a list of residents prioritized for evacuation left Pikangikum on Thursday, and he hopes the remaining 1,200 to 1,300 will be flown out soon.
Ontario’s Ministry of the Solicitor General says it’s working with the Royal Canadian Airforce to fly Pikangikum residents to nearby communities.
A military spokesman confirms three airplanes are being used to transport residents, with two helicopters on standby if needed.
Fiddler says favourable wind conditions have given residents a respite from heavy smoke and have opened a crucial window for evacuation.
“That’s why the evacuation is sort of going full tilt today,” he said. “We’re trying to get as many people out as possible.”
Fiddler said the list of vulnerable residents include the elderly, those with respiratory conditions, young children, and anyone else whose presence is required to support them.
The community, which is 500 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., currently plans to evacuate roughly 1,600 of its nearly 2,300 residents, Fiddler said.
Solicitor General spokesman Brent Ross said he could not confirm the number of potential evacuees, citing the “fluidity of the situation,” but said efforts are underway to get people out of Pikangikum.
“There are currently three planned flights to the community by Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft, which will bring evacuees from the community to Sioux Lookout, which is acting as a hub airport,” Ross said in a statement.
“Smaller fixed wing aircraft operated by private carriers on behalf of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry will then be used to take the evacuees from Sioux Lookout to Cochrane, which is acting as a host community.”
The Ministry of Natural Resources said four waterbombers and 14 ground crews are working to battle the blaze, estimated at around 3,000 hectares.
Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement for the Pikangikum area, warning residents could experience symptoms such as coughing, headaches or shortness of breath.
“Children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung disease, such as asthma, are especially at risk,” the agency said, adding the northerly winds should help improve conditions in Pikangikum but blow smoke towards communities further south.