Sunday, July 24, 2011


Firefighters in Northwestern Ontario say they are finally gaining the upper hand in their battle against a huge forest fire that has forced thousands of First Nations people to evacuate their remote communities.

Some 1,500 firefighters from across Canada have flocked to the area to fight 100 separate fires burning across an area of more than 500,000 hectares, slightly smaller than Prince Edward Island.

The Canadian Forces have been called in to assist with evacuations.

"This is the worst fire season I've seen in 30 years," said Owen Vaughan, a fire information officer with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources

Northwestern Ontario has been in drought conditions for over two months, but a change in weather patterns is cause for optimism. Weather was overcast and cool with a slight breeze Saturday, following a sprinkling of 10 to 50 mm of rain in the past days.

"Weather like this really helps in fire suppression efforts," Vaughn told Postmedia News Saturday. "With this kind of weather you can get a lot of work done in a day."

"I suspect we're gonna have more fires declared out today because of the weather," he said. "In the coming days those 'out' numbers are going to increase."

Twenty-one communities have declared emergencies, while 13 have been fully or partially evacuated said Dave Jackson, an emergency response co-ordinator with the Ontario Department of Natural Resources.

"All of them are remote First Nations, places like Sandy Lake, Cat Lake and Mishkeegogamang," he said.

Jackson said around 3,600 people have been evacuated.

"We've been going at this for two months now," Jackson said. "This is the second round of evacuations for some of these communities."

Most communities have been evacuated not because of fire, but because of huge clouds of smoke generated by the blazes. These were causing health problems, particularly for the elderly and those with respiratory illnesses over the past months.

He said these communities have also coped with power outages, due to burned out power lines.

"The power outages lead to all kinds of social disruption, because you can't keep food from spoiling, septic systems go down and you don't have potable water to use."

The Canadian Forces were called in to assist with evacuations, and used five Hercules transport aircraft to remove people to Thunder Bay. From there, evacuees have been relocated to Toronto, Ottawa, and small towns across southern and eastern Ontario.

The elderly, infirm and pregnant and families with small children have been put in hotels. The others are now sleeping on cots in arenas, high schools and community centres across the province.

Vaughan said about 650 firefighters have poured in from across Canada to pitch in, including crews from British Columbia and Newfoundland. Among them is crew from Slave Lake, Ata., which is happy to return a favour to crews who helped extinguish the flames that devoured their town in May.

"We do this sort of mutual aid across the country," he said. "The firefighters who are here from Slave Lake are saying its payback time."

These out-of-province crews brought their equipment, and now over 100 aircraft are involved in fighting the blaze. Included are Bombardier 415 "Superscooper" water bombers, and helicopters with so-called "monsoon buckets" that can deliver water to hot spots with precision. Operations are being co-ordinated out of a command centre in Dryden, Ont.

"There's a war room," Vaughan said. "Just like you'd see in NORAD or something."

With the right weather conditions, officials said, the fires could be brought under control in the coming days.

"By the end of next week, we're going to be in pretty good shape," Vaughan said. "Once the fire is in kind of hand, we'll send in crews whose primary job it is to mop up these areas."

The fire will not be declared extinguished until a helicopter equipped with an infrared camera — sensitive enough to detect a lit cigarette — can ensure all fires have finished smouldering. Firefighters expect northwestern Ontario to continue to smoulder for weeks or months before the area is extinguished.

"We'll be at this well into October, I think," Jackson said.