Ontario officials evacuated more than 3,000 First Nations people from northern Ontario communities on Wednesday as more fires erupted, as more people waited on standby and fires continued unabated.
Officials said thousands more could need evacuation as the week wears on. A total of 112 fires were burning as of July 20, with more expected as thunderstorms with heavy lightning continued, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) said in a statement.
In a worst-case scenario, Thunder Bay Fire Chief John Hay said, up to 7,000 people could be evacuated.
Fighting the fires are more than 2,000 firefighters and support staff with 117 aircraft in the air (including 80 helicopters, 14 water bombers, 7 birddogs and 16 transport planes). Firefighters were already pitching in from British Columbia and Quebec, with another 250 arrived on July 19 from western Canada and the Yukon. The MNR said the fires covered 740,000 acres, breaking “by a landslide” last year’s record of 37,000 acres.
Giant Hercules aircraft continued plying the skies of Northwestern Ontario, picking people up and bringing many of them first to Thunder Bay, on the western shore of Lake Superior, which has become something of an evacuation hub. A few hours after arrival, most evacuees were transported to a growing list of host communities that included Wawa, Sioux Lookout, 'Dryden, Kapuskasing, Matachewan, Greenstone, Marathon, Timmins and Sudbury.
Evacuees described a sometimes frightening journey, from turbulent flights to leaving people behind.
“I'm glad to be out of there with my kids,” Sandy Lake resident Faith Goodman told the Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, but she added that she was concerned for the safety of those waiting to leave the community about 370 miles northwest of Thunder Bay.
Mayor Keith Hobbs told reporters that he and the city are working hard to help the evacuees—from working the phones to find additional host municipalities, to trying to get the Ontario government to provide more assistance. Many of the remote First Nations that are under imminent threat rely completely on air transportation.
“We could have people in danger up there,” he said.
Below, Dave Cleaveley, response and operations manager for the northwest district of MNR, spells out the seriousness of the situation in this video from Tuesday July 19.