Bearing pillows and wearing grins, residents of Sandy Lake First Nation began returning home from their temporary fire-induced exile on July 28.
They were greeted with hugs and handshakes by a welcoming committee of people who had stayed behind in the evacuated community to safeguard their homes.
Meanwhile firefighters finally had weather on their side, as rain was forecast and the number of fires dropped to 108 as of July 28, down from the high of nearly 120 earlier in the week, with a total of 1.4 million acres burned the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) said.
“For the next few days, weather forecasts predict conditions that will support our firefighting efforts,” Emergency Management Ontario (EMO) said in a statement.
The 153 members of the Mishkeegogamang First Nation, which is accessible by road, had been able to return home earlier this week from Dryden and Sioux Lookout, EMO said. As of the morning of July 28, 3,438 residents were still waiting to return home, EMO said.
Although the evacuation had been stressful, host towns and cities had worked to make them feel welcome. Thunder Bay housed and feted them at the Victoria Hotel with a barbeque, jazz concert and other entertainment.
Many of the evacuees had never been off their reserves, and tribal leaders and provincial officials worked hard to reunite separated families and keep them apprised of each others’ whereabouts.
The First Nations people whom residents of Mount Forest got to know were “an awesome group of people,” according to the Mount Forest Confederate.
Air Tindi, a subsidiary of Discovery Air Inc., assisted in the evacuations and returns. Called in by MNR, the aboriginal-owned airline repositioned its Havilland Dash 7 aircraft, a 46-seat, 10,000-pound capacity plane with short take-off and landing capabilities, the airline said in a release.
“We make our home in the North and our employees, Aboriginal business partners and customers deal with the threat of forest fires every summer,” Air Tindi President Chuck Parker said in a statement. “In situations like this we all collectively understand the need to make sacrifices and act quickly to help keep fellow northerners out of harm’s way.”
Although the plane was one of several under contract to Diavik Diamond Mines Inc., the mining company tweaked its schedule so Tindi could take the plane and use it for evacuations, Tindi said.
“Their flexibility during this extremely hazardous time is greatly appreciated,” Parker said.
Chief Adam Fiddler of Sandy Lake First Nation earned hero status by refusing to leave, staying behind with a skeleton staff and monitoring fire damage by helicopter.
Meanwhile smoke had reached as far east as Labrador and been seen in the air over Niagara Falls, according to NASA. Smoke had also made its way east, to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the Nova Scotia Chronicle Herald reported.
A kilometre-thick stream of forest fire smoke from Ontario has been hovering over Nova Scotia and Newfoundland in the past few days. It may not be visible from the ground, but that kind of pollution can have serious implications for people.
Power, which had been cut off to several communities by the fires, was restored to Pickle Lake, and Slate Falls, Cat Lake, and Mishkeegogamang First Nations, among others, said Hydro One, the company supplying those reserves. Firefighting continued across northwestern Ontario, EMO said.