'Time to be a human being': How northern hospitality helped Red Lake fire evacuees

A forest fire displaced a small Ontario community — so nearby towns gave fleeing residents a place to go
By Charnel Anderson - Published on Aug 18, 2020
A water bomber flies over Highway 105 on August 10. (Alxy Drager)



When Richard Schraeder, a supervisor at Evolution Mining in Red Lake, arrived at work on the evening of August 10, he says, the situation was “pandemonium.” A fire, known as Red Lake 49, had begun burning close to the municipality of 4,100 people that afternoon and had quickly gotten out of control.

“We don’t know what’s going on,” says Schraeder. “I work underground, and I’m not sending anybody underground this evening,” he recalls thinking at the time. “That’s a guarantee.”

By 6 p.m., Schraeder says, everyone had been sent home. He and his fiancée, Teresa Thompson, went to Tim Hortons and watched the water bombers soar by, one after the other. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, the fire was fast approaching. The couple was about to head home around 10 p.m. when they learned of the town’s evacuation order advising residents to leave immediately.

The two rushed home and grabbed some clothes, supplies, and their two Labrador pups and joined the convoy of thousands of people leaving Red Lake that evening for nearby communities such as Ear Falls, Dryden, Kenora, Ignace, and Fort Frances. Many began driving without a destination in mind. But they would soon be pleasantly surprised by northern hospitality.

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“We didn’t know where to go, because we didn’t know anybody,” says Schraeder, adding that they initially considered heading to his hometown of Kirkland Lake, a 1,400-kilometre drive away. But then they got a message from the owner of Pooches Paradise in Ear Falls, where the couple occasionally board their dogs. She gave them the phone number to Manotak Lodge, a full-service fishing lodge in Perrault Falls off Highway 105, more than 100 kilometres from Red Lake. “She said the lodge has been empty because of COVID-19,” says Schraeder.

“So we called right away … and [the owner is] like, ‘I’m opening up my cabins. I’m waking up my son. We’re opening up,’” says Schraeder, who didn’t care what it would cost to stay. “And she’s like, ‘It’s going to be free.’”

Red Lake forest fire
A view from Red Lake of the forest fire, which came within just two kilometres of the town. (Alyx Drager)

Border closures mean the season is all but shot for hundreds of seasonal-tourism operators in northwestern Ontario who rely heavily on American tourists for business, but that didn’t stop many of the owners from opening up their accommodations, free of charge, to Red Lake evacuees.

Since Manotak Lodge was closed all season, most of the 16 cabins were clean, but the owners had to fix some leaks and other “bugs that are normally worked out in the first week,” says Christine Swafford, who, with her husband and son, owns and operates Manotak Lodge. By the second day, shower and laundry facilities were opened for the evacuees. “We just felt like it was the right thing to do, to open up and welcome people and give them a safe place to stay.”

Despite the “devastation” facing tourism operators because of the pandemic, Swafford says, it was a “blessing” to be able to help the evacuees. “I know some people are charging, and that’s their prerogative, but I feel like right now it’s not time to be a business — it’s time to be a human being and help people out and give, and it feels good.”

While countless tourism operators have opened their doors to evacuees at no cost, there have been reports of hotels price-gouging. At a press conference last Friday, Premier Doug Ford said he would investigate price-gouging at the Comfort Inn in Dryden, where evacuees were reportedly charged upwards of $400 a night. (In a statement to CBC News, Choice Hotels Canada, owners of the Comfort Inn, said no guests were charged more than $199 a night, adding that “pricing is usually based on demand.”)

Evacuees left without knowing how long they would be gone and consequently didn’t bring enough food to last. As a result, smaller communities, including Ear Falls, a town of fewer than 1,000 people, were quickly overwhelmed. “Everybody was going to get food and basically cleaned out grocery stores,” says Matthew Barrow, the president of Ear Falls Legion, which provided breakfast and lunch to evacuees — thanks in part to a donation from Sysco Foods that former Red Lake resident Marcya Ervick and her husband helped arrange.

Red Lake firefighters
Fire crews had the blaze under control by August 15, after which Red Lake residents were allowed to return to their homes. (Dale Butterfield)

Paige Daley, whose family owns Best West Pet Foods — which is currently home to kittens, rabbits, and “crazy amounts of fish” — stayed behind in Red Lake to look after the business and offered to check on any pets left behind. “Some people left right that second and just didn’t know what to do, so they left their pets,” says Daley, whose boyfriend, Erik Atkinson, also stayed behind and used his food truck to feed firefighters and officials with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

Fire crews began battling the blaze on August 10. They managed to get it under control by Saturday morning, following persistent, heavy rainfall through Friday evening. Twenty four-person crews, as well as a number of helicopters and water bombers, were deployed to fight the fire, which at its peak reached an estimated 750 hectares. The fire damaged hydro and phone lines but not homes or businesses in the area.

On Sunday, evacuees were allowed to return home. Despite the challenges of evacuating on a moment’s notice, Schraeder says, he’s been overwhelmed by the generosity of northwestern Ontarians. “I get choked up every time,” says Schraeder. “It’s unbelievable, the amount of help and support that’s out here.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.

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