Ont. probes report families split up in fire evacuation
Officials in Ontario are investigating whether families evacuated from wildfire-affected communities are being split up, the deputy community safety minister said Saturday.
Ian Davidson said the province is looking into unconfirmed reports that members of some of the families being temporarily relocated from remote First Nations communities in Northern Ontario have been separated in the process.
"Obviously we have done our very best to make sure that entire communities can be in a relative location for obvious reasons," Davidson told reporters Saturday, noting he didn't know whether the complaints referred to extended or immediate families.
Firefighters throughout the region are still working to contain 117 wildfires burning across 500,000 hectares, but evacuations have stopped due to improved weather conditions making it easier to tackle the blazes.
Nearly 3,600 people have been displaced since the wildfires began earlier this month, with the Cat Lake, Koocheching and Keewaywin First Nations being fully evacuated. Eight other communities have faced partial evacuations.
An area about the size of Prince Edward Island has been charred in the fires, most of which are in northwestern Ontario.
On Saturday, emergency response co-ordinator Dave Jackson said anyone whose safety was threatened has been moved out of the region.
"Due to improved weather conditions and reduced smoke… there is no longer an immediate need to move people out," he told CTV News Channel from Dryden, Ont. "We'll see what the weather brings in the future."
The rain and cloudy skies forecast to last until Sunday afternoon have given firefighters a break from the hot and dry conditions that have helped the fires spread. Jackson, an information officer with the Ministry of Natural Resources, said firefighters are "making headway on all fronts," even though 11 new fires were detected on Friday.
The warm weather is expected to return Monday and could pose a fresh challenge for fire crews, he said.
The MNR has set up sprinkler systems to protect the two communities directly affected by fires, Jackson said, noting the other evacuated areas were threatened by smoke only.
Fire rangers are stationed in all threatened communities, some of which also contain residents who have refused to leave.
"It's totally understandable because they were looking after critical infrastructure, keeping the generators running in some communities because they had no power," said Jackson.
"Our top priority from the MNR… is protection of public safety followed by property values."
Provincial emergency planners say displaced residents may have to spend up to two weeks away from home in a worst-case scenario.
"It's our intention to get everyone back as soon as it's safe to do so," said Jackson.
An emergency medical team is stationed in Thunder Bay, the first stop for evacuees on their way to host communities elsewhere in the province. About 150 people departed Thunder Bay for temporary host cities including Ottawa, London and Toronto on Friday.
During a visit to that city on Friday, Premier Dalton McGuinty said the province was doing a good job tackling the blazes without declaring a state of emergency. He said that could change down the road, and his government was in frequent contact with aboriginal leaders to determine whether further evacuations are needed.
With files from The Canadian Press