Saskatchewan to host up to 2,000 wildfire evacuees from northern Ontario

The Saskatchewan government has agreed to host up to 2,000 people who have been forced from their homes by wildfires in northern Ontario.

The Ontario government says more than 20 communities in the province have been affected by the fires, including residents of Pikangikum First Nation.

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Earlier Wednesday, the chief of the Indigenous community said evacuation by land and water had been put on hold because of a lack of places to send her people.

Premier Doug Ford said emergency response personnel are working closely with the Ontario Provincial Police and other agencies to fight the fires and ensure people can evacuate safely.

Ford said he asked Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe for help.

"Today, I raised the issue directly with Premier Scott Moe," Ford said in a release.

"Saskatchewan has offered to host up to 2,000 evacuees. I want to thank Premier Moe and the good people of Saskatchewan for their generosity in helping us to move our people out of harm's way and ensure they are safely housed during this extremely difficult time."

Moe said his government will place the Ontario evacuees in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

He said Saskatchewan is happy to lend a hand, noting that Ontario has helped his province deal with wildfires in the past.

"The last time we put out a call a few years ago here in Saskatchewan, Ontario was there to provide wildfire support on the ground," Moe said at the annual premiers' conference in Saskatoon.

"We were very, very appreciative of that, and we are appreciative to return the favour."

The evacuation of the First Nation was expected to resume on Thursday, as crews battled a fire burning about six kilometres to the southwest.

The Ontario government said it was also reaching out to mayors across the province to ask them to host some of Pikangikum's 3,800 residents.

"There is an urgent need for host communities to provide a safe haven for evacuees during this difficult time," said Brent Ross, a spokesman for the Ministry of the Solicitor General.

Mathew Hoppe, commander of Pikangikum's emergency operations centre in Thunder Bay, Ont., said the recent spell of rain has helped his organization win some time.

"It's looking better than it was a couple days ago, when there was very thick smoke in the community and it had hampered air operations," Hoppe said.

"What we're looking at right now is a better situation going forward for the next few days to give us a chance to get ahead of the game."

Smoke inhalation was a serious issue on Tuesday, prompting Environment Canada to issue a special air quality alert, but Hoppe said some of the smoke had lifted, making it easier to airlift residents out of Pikangikum. Hoppe said Thunder Bay was hosting 600 evacuees in hotels, and was looking at the logistics of taking in more.

"There's a calmness in the community in terms of recognizing the weather's a bit nicer, but the threat and the challenge we have is working day to day," he said.

"We're still planning a full evacuation, maintaining the goal of pulling all of the people out."

At least 72 firefighters were working on the blaze, said Jolanta Kowalski, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Natural Resources.

For several days, residents have been leaving on military flights, boats and buses for communities in northern Ontario.

Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap said six buses and 10 boats were called off on Wednesday, but the aim was still to airlift 300 people out.

Residents hoping to leave Pikangikum by driving were running out of options. The Ministry of Natural Resources said it was closing several key routes because of the smoke, preventing drivers from accessing lakes, campgrounds, parks and roads including the Pikangikum all-weather road.

The Canadian Armed Forces said military planes had airlifted about 645 people as of Wednesday afternoon. Two more flights were scheduled for Wednesday, as well as one for Sunday and two more on Monday.

Alvin Fiddler, grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, praised a local pizza shop in Thunder Bay for "stepping up" to help feed the Pikangikum evacuees.

Co-owner Jim Stadey said Eat Local Pizza decided to offer free meals because families coming into the city might not have the food situation figured out yet. The store was delivering pizza to evacuees to a hotel housing the fire refugees.

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