THUNDER BAY — The City of Thunder Bay will provide shelter to approximately 200 people from Eabametoong First Nation, where smoke from a forest fire poses a health risk to vulnerable members of the community.
City officials made the decision Wednesday morning after the Chief and Council of Eabametoong declared an emergency late Tuesday.
The community is 370 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry says Nipigon fire # 45 is burning 53 kilometres southwest of Eabametoong, and has destroyed 3,300 hectares of forest.
A spokesperson said the fire is not a direct threat to the community but is showing intense behaviour and cause a great deal of smoke.
Chief and Council, in a statement Tuesday, said residents at risk, including elders, children and those with medical conditions, needed to be taken to safety immediately.
The first flight bringing evacuees arrived at Thunder Bay Airport on Wednesday afternoon.
Eabametoong Chief Harvey Yesno said he expects about one-quarter of the 1600 residents of the community will be transferred, most to Thunder Bay and a smaller number to Timmins.
Yesno said the remainder will stay at Eabametoong unless the risk from the fire becomes more severe.
Thunder Bay has also agreed to host people from Red Lake, where a forest fire is burning a few kilometres away.
Up to 10 planeloads of evacuees were expected by Tuesday night, however it turned out that only two flights were required initially, carrying about 54 people.
Approximately another ten individuals from Red Lake were booked to be flown to Thunder Bay by the end of the day Wednesday.
Acting Thunder Bay Fire Chief Greg Hankkio said the city is in a much better position to provide shelter and services than it was in March when the COVID-19 emergency was declared.
At that time, the city decided serving as a host community wasn't feasible.
"With COVID-19...we really didn't know what kind of impact it would have on our municipality, such as loss of staff and being able to provide our core function which is providing service to the City of Thunder Bay," Hankkio said.
The request from the province this week to serve as a host community was the first such request since the March decision.
Given the minimal COVID-19 activity in the area, Hankkio said that after discussions with the Dr. Janet DeMille, the medical officer of health, it was felt the city is comfortably able to offer the necessary support.