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Forest fire continues to threaten community of Red Lake, Ontario, crews brace for change in weather

Aug 14, 2020 07:04AM ● By Editor
Red Lake, Ont., located about 550 kilometres from Thunder Bay, continues to be threatened by a large forest fire burning nearby. About 3,800 residents have left the municipality as of Wednesday. Photo: Submitted by Sol Mamakwa

From CBC News · Thunder Bay - August 13, 2020

A forest fire continues to threaten the town of Red Lake, Ont., as firefighters in the area brace for another challenging day due to changing wind patterns and dry conditions.

On Wednesday evening, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) reported progress in the battle against the blaze. However, on Thursday, the ministry reported southwesterly winds that could blow the fire in the direction of the community again.

Chris Marchand, information officer with the ministry's Aviation, Forest Fire and Emergency Services, said crews are hoping rain in the forecast will help suppress the fire later tonight.

On Tuesday, the fire was reported to cover 750 hectares and was burning just two kilometres from the community in northwestern Ontario. However, as of Thursday, the fire was reported to cover about 550 hectares.

Red Lake Mayor Fred Mota said that while the MNRF is doing a "tremendous job," the firefighting effort still has a "ways to go."

"The fire remains approximately two kilometres southwest of Red Lake," said a statement from Mota. "I assure you the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police) and the MNRF are using every resource available to protect our community."

Late Thursday afternoon, the mayor said the fire is still only about two kilometres from the community.

"We are expecting two severe storms to pass through in the coming hours, bringing lightning accompanied by wind gusts of up to 110 km/hr," Mota said. 

"We remain hopeful that Mother Nature will work in our favour."

Two neighbourhoods lose power

According to Mota, the fire has caused the neighbourhoods of Buffalo and Madsen to lose power. 

Highway 105, a main passage in and out of the community, remains open for southbound traffic. However, Highway 618 in the Madsen area remains closed.

The MNRF has deployed heavy machinery to help fight the blaze, including eight helicopters that supported ground crews, bucketing water onto the edges of the fire.

Water bombers have also been on scene. According to the ministry, 800 loads, or five million litres of water have been dropped on the fire, which is referred to as Red Lake 49.

As of Wednesday, officials said a majority of the Red Lake community had left the town, but around 500 residents remained.

Red Lake, Ont., home to more than 4,000 people, has been impacted by a large forest fire burning near the town. Graphic: CBC

Mota and OPP continue to urge remaining residents to evacuate the area. Shelters and accommodations have been set up for evacuees in Thunder Bay, Fort Frances, Dryden, Kenora and throughout the region.

"It remains unsafe to be in the community. I encourage those still in the community to leave ... and those out of the community to remain out until notified by the municipality that it is safe to return," Mota said on Thursday.

Forest fire hazard 'high to extreme' across region

Forest fire crews are also battling a fire approximately 53 kilometres southwest of Eabametoong First Nation.

The fire has caused poor air quality in the Indigenous community, forcing officials to send its most vulnerable population to Thunder Bay.

Thunder Bay is currently hosting about 300 fire evacuees, a city official confirmed on Thursday. The majority — about 250 people — are from Eabametoong and arrived in the city on Wednesday. 

As of Wednesday, officials said the fire is not a direct threat to the community's buildings or infrastructure. On Thursday morning, the fire was reported to be 3,603 hectares in size.

According to the MNRF, the forest fire hazard across the region is "high to extreme," with 32 active fires across the northwest of the province.

To read the original story and see more wildfire reporting, follow this link to the CBC News - Thunder Bay website.