‘Maxed out’: Northern communities call for more evacuation support

This summer, nearly 4,000 people across six First Nations were evacuated due to forest fires. As climate change intensifies, how will government act?
By Nick Dunne - Published on Sep 24, 2021
As of July 13, the Red Lake 51 wildfire was roughly 25 kilometres west of Deer Lake First Nation. (Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter)

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By July 11, the wildfire that had started in the Red Lake District two weeks earlier now covered more than 275 square kilometres and was closing in on Deer Lake First Nation. The sky over the Oji-Cree community, 300 kilometres north of Kenora, was hazy with wafting smoke, and the sun, when it was visible, was a burnt orange. 

The region had been hit by drought and unseasonable heat: by early July, Deer Lake’s water level had dropped, according to Councillor David Meekis. “We were joking that the reef and rocks around the lakes grew this year,” he says. 

Then ash began to fall from the sky. “We were told [the fire] was 46 kilometres away,” Meekis says. “Within one day and one night, it travelled roughly 16 kilometres to 20 kilometres toward us.” 

Mickie Meekis, then the chief, declared a state of emergency in the fly-in community on July 10. Two days later, its roughly 870 residents began evacuating: 534 residents headed for Cornwall (roughly 1,650 kilometres away) and 174 for Thunder Bay (580 kilometres). Others went to Cochrane (just under 1,000 kilometres). 

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a large plane on the ground and a helicopter in the air
Deer Lake First Nation began evacuating on July 12. (Courtesy of David Meekis)

David Meekis says Lytton, a town in British Columbia that had been largely destroyed by a wildfire, was on his mind. “It was very scary to think about,” he says. “But we still had to continue making sure our community members were being taken care of.” 

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, there have been 1,189 wildfires in Ontario’s fire region this year; the 10-year average is 805. This summer, nearly 4,000 people across six First Nations were evacuated in northwestern Ontario due to wildfires. First Nations, climate scientists, and emergency coordinators say evacuation preparedness needs to be improved — and included in federal climate-change plans. 

“Fires have become taller; they have become more intense. They’re longer-season — they start earlier and go later,” says David Phillips, a climatologist with Environment Canada. “They’re bigger and faster-moving, creating their own weather.” Phillips notes that, between 1983 and 1993, an average of 16,000 square kilometres of forest burned every year in Canada; between 2011 and 2021, that figure nearly doubled, to more than 30,000 square kilometres a year — and he says it’s only going to get worse. “The models say it could be double that to 10 times that by the end of the century if we don’t do something about it. We’ve got to seek solutions about evacuating people.” 

In Ontario, the evacuation process is managed provincially through Emergency Management Ontario and the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which maintain a list of potential host and supports to coordinate evacuations. Most hosts are municipalities, but they can also be First Nations and other organizations. Hosts typically provide housing, food, and recreation services, and are funded by Indigenous Services Canada, which sends liaison officers to assist and oversee the operations: according to the Joint Emergency Management Steering Committee, “the federal government through ISC is responsible for the remuneration of all eligible provincial and municipal costs during First Nations community evacuations."

Eric Nordlund, deputy chief of Thunder Bay Fire Rescue, says the city has been regularly hosting for the past decade — and that there is more to it than arranging for food and hotel rooms. “While Thunder Bay Fire is the operational management team, we also have recreation and culture [organizations]. They will bring in lifeguards and youth workers.” 

EMO states that “municipalities that consider acting as Host Communities should involve their local health partners (such as Local Health Integration Networks (LHINs)/Ontario Health (OH), public health units, hospitals, community health centres, and other health care organizations) in planning discussions to ensure that the community is able to take care of the evacuees’ health needs.”

Nordlund says hosts also need to have cultural awareness to maintain an active relationship with the evacuated community: “You need community liaisons to make sure that there’s adequate communication. Communication goes a long way. It sounds simple, but it goes a long way.” 

Meekis notes that, while his community is familiar with Thunder Bay, "there’s more of a cultural shock from going from a town of 1,300 people, and then you were dropped into cities that are 5,000 people. Thunder Bay is over 100,000.” Even little things, such as familiar foods, can help, he says — especially for kids: "Foods that we're used to eating in the far north, it's a meat-and-potatoes kind of menu.”

Nordlund says that, as evacuations become larger and more frequent, they also become more difficult to manage. “We were maxed out from an operational-management point of view [this year]; we could not do more.” 

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa, whose riding bore the brunt of the northwest’s wildfires, says the team in Thunder Bay goes “above and beyond.” But, he says, the Deer Lake evacuation is also an example of the province’s limited capacity: when he went to visit the cohort in Cornwall, hosted in the Nav Centre, an event facility, the rooms couldn’t accommodate large families, and there were no recreation services for children, whom he saw running around the halls. 

aerial shot of water and forests
Deer Lake First Nation is 300 kilometres north of Kenora.
(Courtesy of David Meekis)

Nav Canada, the non-profit corporation that manages the centre, says Indigenous Services Canada contracted it to provide food and accommodation — not recreation. A Nav spokesperson told TVO.org via email that it had just one day to prepare before receiving the evacuees and that, at the time of the request, the centre itself had been “largely closed.” 

“It would definitely help our communities if [hosts] were more prepared,” says Meekis. “It’s hard to say that when you’re only given a few days to get ready, but with global warming, I think this is going to be a more normal occurrence.” 

Nordlund says Thunder Bay has asked the province to identify more municipalities that could host evacuated northern communities. “How can we be better prepared across the province so that, if you’re part of the emergency-management team in Guelph or in Sault Ste. Marie, your team will have the familiarity and competence to be able to pull this off if asked?” he says. “They got to go as far as [Cornwall]. To me, there’s a gap there that needs to be addressed.” In an email to TVO.org, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Solicitor General said that “Emergency Management Ontario is aware of the City of Thunder Bay’s offer to help increase potential host community capacity. We thank the City of Thunder Bay for their offer and are continuing to work with them to explain to other host communities about the important role they can play in times of emergency.”

Mamakwa says he would like to see greater First Nations involvement in the process. The Independent First Nations Alliance, a tribal council in northwestern Ontario, coordinated evacuations to Sioux Lookout and Thunder Bay this year. Lac Seul First Nation and Wauzhushk Onigum also acted as host communities, according to the Ministry of the Solicitor General. 

“There are some concrete plans whereby we have First Nations-led plans where we run our own affairs,” Mamakwa says, pointing to a May 2021 report on emergency management from Nishnawbe Aski Nation that provides a set of recommendations for both provincial and federal governments. For example, it suggests that First Nations that declare an emergency receive access to funding and increased powers — much in the same way municipalities do now. It also calls for more funding to be allocated to the “pre-disaster” period to support evacuations. 

In an emailed statement to TVO.org, a spokesperson for ISC says that “advance funding is

plane flying high above a forest fire
Nearly 4,000 people across six First Nations have evacuated due to wildfires this summer. (Ontario Forest Fires/Twitter)

available to host communities for emergency preparedness and to support operations during an evacuation. Agreements are put in place with host communities that can be activated at the time of an evacuation.”

In its platform for the 2021 federal campaign, the Liberal party, which won the election, did not specifically mention evacuations. Instead, it outlined a national adaptation strategy that includes $500 million to purchase more firefighting equipment, train 1,000 community-based firefighters, and expand Indigenous-led fire crews. Meekis is cautiously optimistic. “I would have to say I’m going to take a wait-and-see approach to this government — not just this federal government but also the provincial government,” he says. “It is a step in the right direction.”

Still, Phillips says, “the politicians are focused on mitigation. Let’s face it, we’ve tried that strategy for 30 years. The script is there. Hundred-year storms all of a sudden came together in the last 10 years. It’s a fundamental change to our climate, so adaptation has to be given its due time.”

Meekis says any new strategy should prioritize First Nations involvement: “They understand the environment that people are coming from, the cultural differences.” 

Regardless, he is thankful to the host communities. Evacuees started heading home in early mid-August. “Hopefully, in the future, if things are better planned, it will be easier for both the community members, as well as the host cities,” Meekis says. “With these things that are happening, global warming, I think this is going to be more normal.” 

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