Canada — Before she was evacuated from her home at the Sandy Lake First Nation Wednesday, Nora Jane Meekis had only spent a few days away from her sons and grandchildren.
She is one of thousands of people who have fled their homes in recent weeks as the size of forest fires in the area of northwestern Ontario outstripped last years total.
Ms. Meekis was separated from many family members earlier this week when they were evacuated early for health reasons and taken to Thunder Bay, Ont. On Wednesday, Ms. Meekis was flown by a Canadian Forces Hercules plane to Greenstone, Ont, a four-hour drive away from her family. She was among 300 who were evacuated Thursday from Sandy Lake.
I want my bed and my family, Ms. Meekis said, at the Marjorie Mills Public School thats her home for now.
She is one of many evacuees who not only was forced from her community, but sent to a place where she is separated from family members a double emotional wallop.
There are more than 1,000 evacuees in Greenstone now, according to the mayor. The municipalitys population is only about 5,000 and its schools, arenas and community centres are now chock full of people being hosted there.
Greenstone has accepted people during forest-fire season before but it hasnt taken in so many for about four years, said Mayor Renald (Ron) Beaulieu.
At this time were pretty well maxed out, he said, sitting in the bleachers of a local arena where hundreds of evacuees sleep, eat and spend their days. He said all of the people hes hosting are from first nations communities.
Burning fires and smoke filled skies found in areas including Fort Albany, Nipigon District, Red Lake District and Sioux Lookout District have already outnumbered last summers total and cover far more land. So far this year, 416,582 hectares have been affected compared to last years 14,262.
On Thursday, the official number of active fires was 109, only three less than the day before despite rain in some areas.
The smoke made it difficult to breath in Sandy Lake for the last few weeks said 19-year-old Phoenix Grant Kakegumic, sitting at a school lunch table with a few friends and his girlfriend. His mother and father were some of the first to leave because of health problems, so he listened to the radio alone waiting to hear it was time be evacuated.
Now hes in Greenstone while his parents are hours away. His biggest concerns, he said, are leaving his property and his girlfriends four-month-old puppy behind.
There may be more difficulties for people being transferred to centres in cities like Ottawa and Toronto, Mayor Beaulieu said, adding many evacuees are from small, tight-knit communities.
The Peel branch of the Salvation Army said it was getting ready for up to 2,000 people who were expected to arrive by early Friday morning.
Linda Jeffrey, Ontarios Minister of Natural Resources, said her first concern is that help is getting to those who need it. Her ministry is working with Emergency Management Ontario and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada to deal with the forest fires.
Ms. Jeffrey travelled to Thunder Bay to see some of the evacuation centres and fly over fire damage.
She said the latest number available of total evacuees is 2,730, which was tallied on Wednesday night, despite reports of more than 4,000 people fleeing their homes.
Also on Thursday, Premier Dalton McGuinty left the annual premiers’ meeting in Vancouver early, heading home to deal with the rapidly growing forest fire problem in northwestern Ontario.
About 2,000 firefighters and support staff, including close to 600 personnel from other provinces, are battling the fires.
The growth of larger fires is slowing but those still burning are producing large amounts of smoke, a major hazard for communities and firefighters alike.
Most of the out-of-province firefighters battling the fires are from British Columbia, which sent another 74 helpers to Ontario on Thursday, bumping its total contribution to 533.
Sixteen water bombers and 85 other aircraft were involved in the operations.