Intense wildfire season forces evacuations from Oregon to Ontario

Thousands of people from five remote First Nations in northern Ontario are being evacuated by plane amid some of the largest wildfires currently burning in North America.

An early and intense wildfire season fueled by climate change has forced evacuations across the continent – from Oregon to British Columbia to Ontario. More than 150 wildfires are blazing in northwestern Ontario near small First Nation communities that can only be accessed by plane or boat, and do not have the resources to fight back. Last week, Mexico sent 100 firefighters to Ontario to help battle the flames.

First Nations in the region have faced wildfire evacuations before, but not at this scale, explained Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler, who represents 49 communities in northern Ontario. Nearly 3,000 people have evacuated from northern First Nations.

“This year, we’re seeing more communities impacted by this,” Fiddler said.

Deer Lake and Poplar Hill are fully evacuated, most of Pikangikum has evacuated, and Cat Lake and North Spirit Lake have begun evacuating vulnerable people. The evacuees are staying in hotels in Thunder Bay, Sault Ste Marie and Toronto.

First Nation communities are already experiencing stress as they recover from the pandemic and grieve the discoveries of children’s graves at residential schools, Fiddler explained.

“All this is compounding on the mental health of our families and children,” he said. “It’s a very challenging time for our families.”

Nearly 300 fires have forced evacuations of more than 5,000 properties across British Columbia, prompting the province to declare a state of emergency this week, however, Ontario has hesitated to do the same.

Fiddler said he was calling Ontario officials almost daily to urge them to declare a state of emergency, which would expedite resources for evacuations and firefighting.

“It’s frustrating dealing with government officials — they are always trying to minimise the threat and the danger that our communities face, including from climate change and the forest fires,” Fiddler said. “When it comes to Indigenous communities, their concerns are not taken as seriously.”

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