Forest fire evacuees head back home to Keewaywin and Pikangikum First Nations
Residents of two northwestern Ontario First Nations forced from their homes by forest fires will soon start heading back now that the blazes are dying down, provincial officials and community members said Friday.
Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General issued statements saying residents will begin travelling back to the communities of Keewaywin and Pikangikum in the coming days, adding the process is expected to take more than a week.
Major forest fires forced the majority of residents to flee the flames and seek shelter in host cities ranging as far afield as Saskatchewan while crews worked to contain the flames, some of which came perilously close to community borders.
Joe Meekis, former chief of Keewaywin First Nation, said residents will be relieved to return to their homes.
"They're getting tired of staying in hotels... there's no place like home," Meekis said in a telephone interview. "Even if it's burned, it's still home."
Keewaywin's nearly 450 residents began leaving the area on July 7 as a fire dubbed Red Lake 23 crept closer to the remote community. They have spent the days since in the Ontario communities of Sioux Lookout and Timmins, which Meekis said were both welcoming and accommodating during the evacuation.
Days later, another fire classified as Red Lake 39 forced thousands of people to be evacuated from Pikangikum and take shelter in six Ontario communities as well as municipalities in Saskatchewan. The Prairie province agreed to take in residents and ease the burden on local communities who said their resources were overtaxed by the influx of evacuees.
Residents began returning home on Wednesday, and officials with the First Nation said those efforts are expected to continue in the coming days.
Chris Marchand, a fire information officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources, said a recent bout of heavy rain helped crews contain both blazes.
While neither fire has been fully extinguished, Marchand said officials are confident that they have stopped expanding and pose no further threats to nearby communities.
"They're fairly confident that, given the resources and the weather at hand, that (the fire) is not going to go anywhere," Marchand said.
Meekis said Keewaywin residents have learned the fire did not do any physical damage to the community, though will still likely leave one lasting effect.
"Our hunting will be somewhat lacking this year because of the fire," he said. "The animals won't be coming around to feed."