Northern Ontario communities band together to help evacuees – by Carys Mills (Globe and Mail – July 23, 2011)

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GREENSTONE, ONT.— In a cramped high-school kitchen on the Ginoogaming First Nation reserve, Krista Taylor fries bacon and toasts bread, making breakfast for close to 100 forest-fire evacuees.

She labours in the kitchen with two other women from the reserve who have worked the eight-hour shift that starts at 7 a.m. Some evacuees are asleep in nearby classrooms and the gym, while a few others chat by the school’s front doors.

Ginoogaming, with an on-reserve population of about 160 people, has stepped up to feed and house evacuees from the Sandy Lake First Nation, where forest fires rage. The community near Greenstone, Ont., about 250 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, opened its doors when more than 1,600 people were flown out of Sandy Lake this week, after the government deemed the level of smoke blowing from nearby fires was too treacherous.

For Ms. Taylor, the choice to help was simple. “I like cooking and it’s good to help these people,” she said, wearing a name tag on her T-shirt reading “cook.” It’s been about a decade since she worked at an evacuation this large in the area.

On Friday, government officials said 3,591 people have been evacuated from areas of Northern Ontario, including Sandy Lake and at least 10 other first nation communities. While 13 more fires ignited on Thursday, wet weekend weather is expected to help the 2,000 firefighters dousing the flames.

No more evacuations are expected over the weekend, officials said, but it’s unknown when the thousands already taken from the North’s first nation communities will be allowed back. For now, communities like Ginoogaming can focus on the accommodation of evacuees rather than extending their reach to house even more.

More than 1,000 evacuees are being housed hosted in Greenstone, an amalgamation of eight communities near the eastern shores of Lake Nipigon. Despite the size of Greenstone, which its size – Greenstone has a population of only 5,000 – it has the largest group of evacuees in the province.

Evacuees were torn from their homes with little notice. It isn’t clear when they will be able to return.

“You want to look after them because they’re somewhere they don’t know,” said Curran Fiddler, who is from Sandy Lake and was tasked with watching over everyone at the reserve.

Evacuees were torn from their homes with little notice. It isn’t clear when they will be able to return. After touching down at the nearby Geraldton airport during the past three weeks, they were put in school buses and driven to nearby arenas, community centres and schools. The relative calm of their arrival stands in stark contrast to how most of their journeys began.

Joan Morriseau’s trip to Greenstone started with her sitting by her radio waiting to be told it was her time to leave Sandy Lake. Her 19-year-old daughter left earlier, while Ms. Morriseau waited her turn. Now she’s not sure where her daughter is.

“I don’t know where she ended up, just that she’s on plane 12,” she said.

Ms. Morriseau was brought by a Canadian Forces Hercules to the safety of Geraldton airport, where military and small chartered planes have been flying in evacuees. The airport is so tiny that on Thursday a group of teenagers heading home from Canadian Rangers camp almost filled up its main room and 14 seats.

The military planes hold about 100 people; the private planes seat 15. The evacuation has not been easy. Wasaya Airways pilot Kevin Robinson has been to flying to pick up evacuees for the last few weeks. This week, he was sent out twice to pick up evacuees but was forced to turn around and come back.

“The smoke was so thick that the visibility was nothing, you couldn’t see the runway lights or anything,” he said.

Back at Ginoogaming, it’s not just Ms. Taylor and the other chefs working. Others have been hired as security guards and custodians and to run events for kids at the Nimiki Migizi-Thunder Eagle Secondary School.

Jordan O’Nabigon, 21, said he feels lucky to have been asked to work with the evacuees. “There are more people who want to help than jobs,” he said.

He said he feels compelled to help people from Sandy Lake because they’re also from a first nations community. “They’re our people,” he said. “They’re just from other places.”

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