Wildfires have forced hundreds of people to evacuate from First Nations communities in northeastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. The fires have also prompted special air quality statements for parts of both provinces.

The Canadian Red Cross says that up to 150 residents from Little Grand Rapids and as many as 50 residents from Pauingassi First Nation were being transported on Sunday to Winnipeg, where they are being housed in hotels.

So far, the evacuations are only for the elderly, babies and people with chronic respiratory problems, the Red Cross said. The Red Cross provides all disaster relief to Manitoba First Nations on behalf of the federal government.

Tess Quinn and her seven-month-old baby Owen were among those airlifted out.

“It’s really good to not have to worry about what he’s breathing in,” she told CTV Winnipeg. “We’re going to have some fun times in Winnipeg, go to some restaurants,” she added.

Just over the border in northwestern Ontario, dozens more wildfires are forcing evacuations.

The Red Lake 23 wildfire has grown to 719 square kilometres and remains out of control, burning just eight kilometres south of Keewaywin First Nation. About half of the communty’s 450 residents fled for Sioux Lookout, Ont., and Timmins earlier this week.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Saturday that military would help to evacuate the community from Pikangikum First Nation. The Department of National Defence said 20 Army Rangers and a Hercules helicopter have been assigned to assist.

It’s unclear how many of the community’s 2,000 residents will be temporarily moved, but so far only the elderly, pregnant women, people with respiratory problems and their immediate families are being flown out.

The evacuations come just over one year after a wildfire forced 2,000 people to evacuate from Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nation. Two adults and one youth were charged with arson in connection with that blaze.

Special air quality statements

On Sunday, Environment and Climate Change Canada issued special air quality statements for all of Manitoba east of Lake Winnipeg.

“Smoke from forest fires over eastern Manitoba and northwestern Ontario drifted west into the Red River Valley yesterday resulting in poor air quality over eastern and south-central Manitoba,” the statement reads.

“The air quality is expected to improve today from southwest to northeast as winds strengthen out of the south and push the smoke back towards the north. In the Red River Valley, the worst of the smoke should clear during the day, however lesser amounts could linger into tonight. However, communities toward the Ontario border, such as Little Grand Rapids and Bissett, may still experience poor air quality through tonight and into Monday,” the statement goes on.

The government agency also issued special air quality statements Sunday for parts of northwestern Ontario, including Dryden, Fort Frances, Kenora, Lake Nipigon, Pickle Lake, Red lake and Sandy Lake.

Environment and Climate Change Canada says that people in areas affected by smoke from forest fires should:

  • limit outdoor activity and/or strenuous physical activity; if breathing becomes difficult or uncomfortable, stop or reduce the activity
  • reduce exposure to smoke by staying indoors or moving to areas with cleaner air, as conditions can vary dramatically by area
  • turn off furnaces and air-conditioning units that may draw smoke indoors
  • keep indoor air cleaner by avoiding smoking or burning other materials