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Crews prepare for strong winds as they battle fire, storm near Red Lake, Ont.

Last Updated Aug 13, 2020 at 5:08 pm EDT

Firefighters and emergency workers prepared for a vicious storm while battling a massive wildfire on the doorstep of the northwestern Ontario community of Red Lake on Thursday.

The municipality has been almost entirely evacuated this week, with about 4,000 residents dispersed to numerous communities — the vast majority of them able to drive south along the highway.

But with the fire just two kilometres away and forecasters tracking a severe thunderstorm in the area, Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota said his community was bracing for the worst.

“Today the community is going to have some difficulties,” said Mota, noting the storm will bring with it much needed rain, but also lightning, nickel-sized hail and strong winds.

“The worrisome piece is that the wind gusts are going to be up to 110 kilometres per hour,” Mota said. “So we’ve got very, very strong wind gusts coming and that’s going to pose some challenges and difficulties for the firefighters.”

Jonathan Scott, a fire information officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said crews have made “great progress” on the fire, dubbed Red Lake 49, over the past two days.

As smoke dissipated Wednesday, investigators were able to get a better handle on its size, which is now 552 hectares, down from the earlier estimate of 750 hectares, Scott said.

“For today, winds will be out of the southeast and south, similar to yesterday, and it will put pressure on the northern flank, the head of the fire, the most active part and where we’re focusing most of our efforts,” he said.

Mota said officials have also spent time talking to residents about the COVID-19 pandemic, but noted there are currently no active cases in the entire northwest region, according to the local health unit.

“With the COVID-19, some people are very aware of it and we’re reminding people to remain socially distanced, to wear their face masks, to clean their hands regularly,” he said.

About 3,800 people have registered as having self-evacuated, according to the provincial Ministry of the Solicitor General, which is co-ordinating the relocation efforts.

He said 65 people were flown out of the area and the province has planes at the ready should they be needed.

Mota said about 100 residents remain in the Red Lake area, and most say they do not plan to leave their homes.

Chantal Cole-Fitzpatrick is among those who’ve stayed, although she is about 10 kilometres from the fire in nearby Balmertown, Ont., where she runs a pet store.

“If the power goes down, our fish will die, so we’ll stick around for them to start generators and that,” she said. “We’ll leave when we absolutely have to.”

In the meantime, Cole-Fitzpatrick and her family are doing their part to help out. They spent about 10 hours Wednesday looking after all the pets that were left behind by evacuees.

“There’s everything from turtles to hamsters, ferrets, chickens, pigeons, ducks — all kinds of animals,” she said.

“Lots of cats were left outside because the owners couldn’t find them in time, so we’ve been breaking into people’s houses and letting them in. As long as people need help, we’ll absolutely help them.”

Colin Hodgson said he was at a fly-in fishing lodge about 30 kilometres east of Red Lake on Monday night with his partner and some friends, when they spotted flames in the distance near his home in Balmertown.

Planes were grounded that day due to the smoke, but they were able to fly home on Tuesday.

“We got in our vehicle, ran home, grabbed our cats and whatever we could, just five minutes in the apartment and rushed out,” he said.

“We were worried we’d be trapped in, but the road was open.”

He, his partner and their kittens are now safe with family in Winnipeg.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 13, 2020.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press