A genuine emergency [Fire in northwestern Ontario] – (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial – July 21, 2011)

The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

A TELLING perception about evacuations from Northwestern Ontario’s fast-moving forest fire situation reportedly came from Grand Chief Stan Beardy. Gazing in disbelief Wednesday at a fire map dotted with more than 100 little red arrows representing fires licking close to some Nishnawbe Aski Nation communities, Beardy reportedly told Mayor Keith Hobbs that there’s a perception among evacuees that Thunder Bay doesn’t want to take in any more of them. Nothing could be further from the truth. But Hobbs said an absence of provincial co-ordination had left both men wondering who would take charge of a situation that’s been turning more desperate by the hour.

Thousands of people have been flown out of northern reserves on federal military aircraft headed for Thunder Bay and a number of other transfer points. Thunder Bay, at least, quickly turned into a pinch point because provincial aircraft that were expected to move them out to other communities haven’t been arriving in time.

Hobbs, Beardy and Thunder Bay Fire Chief John Hay were struggling Wednesday to deal with an emergency that hadn’t been declared. Beardy asked why the province hasn’t announced one while Hobbs and Hay were trying to coordinate evacuees pouring into the city with nowhere to go. All three men were calling provincial officials to step up co-ordination but they were getting nowhere.

Tuesday was worse, but on Wednesday there were still more people arriving at the airport than could be flown out. Thunder Bay has been designated as a “transportation hub,” not a destination, so it is trying to get people in and out as fast as possible. This led some evacuees to feel unwelcome, which is truly unfortunate.

Hay said Thunder Bay has the plan and the resources to host thousands of evacuees, but in the absence of a suitable provincial policy the city is restricted to transferring them. Hay was not willing to discuss the issue in detail, but he did say it dates back to “bad business” during fire evacuations two years ago.

Two years should have provided the province, Ottawa and municipalities plenty of time to work out a seamless plan for forest fire evacuations. Instead, the North was searing under a record 112 fires Wednesday, some burning dangerously close to communities and a mine site, blanketing them in thick smoke, forcing people out.

Fire officials speak in superlatives — flames crowning 45 metres above treetops, for example — and some fire crews are being pulled off enormous blazes that are simply unpredictable. Instead, they are left to burn wildly while nervous fire personnel monitor wind and weather forecasts hoping for a break.

The fires — some showing extreme behaviour — cover over 300,000 hectares, “breaking last year’s record, of just over 15,000, by a landslide,” the province’s Aviation and Forest Fire Management website exclaims.

“Fire rangers made excellent progress (Tuesday) by putting out 20 of the existing fires.” But lightning started 20 more and the fire centre was expecting 20 new ones on Wednesday.
Ontario’s emergency operations centre was pressed into service on Monday, but by Wednesday Thunder Bay was still told that it should take in only 290 people — housed in a city hotel — and funnel the rest to other communities for housing.

Hobbs said he’d been on the phone continuously with mayors of other northern communities arranging for them to receive evacuees. That isn’t his job, though he and Hay have been doing it, sleeplessly, while the province appears to have been slow off the mark.

There is a provincial emergency operations centre in place and the MNR north central fire centre is at Thunder Bay’s airport. The resources are there to process the thousands of evacuees that can conceivably expect to have to move quickly out of their communities in any summer. Thunder Bay is a logical place to house more than 290 of them. Surely, once this emergency is over, it will be time to come up with a plan that works.