Northeastern Ontario communities host hundreds of fire evacuees from northwest
More than 1,000 people have been evacuated from Pikangikum, Deer Lake, and Poplar Hill First Nations in northwestern Ontario as raging forest fires in the area are causing air quality to plummet.
Around 500 people have been evacuated to Sudbury and several hundred more to Timmins, Cochrane and Kapuskasing.
The deputy chief of the Timmins Fire Department, Ellard Beaven, said local emergency management teams and Indigenous organizations are working together in this latest evacuation.
"Just to assist any of these evacuees with any healthcare supports, language issues, anything we can do to make their stay a little better," Beaven said.
The province declared a state of emergency in the northeast, as have host communities, in order to access more resources for battling the blaze and keeping evacuees comfortable.
Many of them are children, elderly, or have health conditions and Timmins Mayor George Pirie said the whole province has a responsibility to help in situations like this.
The least his city can do, he said, is make accommodations for the around 150 evacuees now landed and housed at a local hotel.
"(These are) the most vulnerable, the first 150 of the most vulnerable population of smoke and breathing issues," Pirie said.
Keeping them safe includes protecting them against COVID-19, explained Kapuskasing’s Mayor, Dave Plourde.
His community is hosting at least 130 people from the northwest, having set up an evacuation centre with food, medical, mental health, and education services.
Having proper public health protocols in place is also a priority, he said, especially with the province now in Step 3 of its reopening plan.
"We want to make sure that when we send them back home, that they’re not going back worse than when they came," Plourde said. "Certainly we wouldn’t want them to contract COVID-19 while they’re in our community and we’re doing our best to make sure that we have everything in place to make sure that they don’t."
The Porcupine Health Unit’s medical officer of health, Dr. Lianne Catton, said in a news briefing that the health unit will make first and second doses of COVID-19 vaccines available to evacuees who haven’t received one.
"We’ll be working with the evacuation centres in the communities themselves, to ensure that opportunities for vaccine are available," Catton said.
Beaven said usually the city hosts evacuees for two to three weeks, but in this case, it all depends on how long it takes for crews to get the forest fires under control.
With limited rainfall and high temperatures, he said there’s a possibility that the fires will worsen and that more people in the area will need to be evacuated.
"As that changes, we’ll have a better idea of when they’ll be heading back," Beaven said.