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Hundreds evacuated as fires burn up land in northern Ontario

Billowing smoke is causing headaches for fire crews.
Billowing smoke is causing headaches for fire crews.

Lyndsay Morrison and Jill Colton, staff writers

July 20, 2011 — Fire crews are struggling to gain the upper hand on dozens of wildfires flaming out of control across northwestern Ontario.

Smoke has been affecting some residential communities
Smoke has been affecting some residential communities

As many as 4,600 residents of First Nations communities could be evacuated by Canadian Forces personnel as wildfires threaten several communities. By Wednesday afternoon, hundreds of people had already been airlifted out of the communities of Sandy Lake, Kingfisher Lake and Wunnumin Lake.

All evacuees are first being taken to Thunder Bay, then relocated to host communities across Ontario, including Greenstone, Kapuskasing and even Ottawa.

More than 2,000 firefighters are involved in the battle, and the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) says more help is on the way from B.C., Newfoundland and Labrador. More than 112 wildfires are now burning out of control across the region.

Officials say the billowing smoke is hampering progress.

The smoke is so dense it's visible from space. That's raised health fears among northern communities.

“Pretty well every community in the northwest region has the potential to be affected by smoke,” says Debbie MacLean, a fire information officer for the Ministry of Natural Resources in Dryden.

“Of course it all depends on the weather - which way the wind is blowing. If the weather is fine, clear, sunny, dry and windy, then the fires come back to life and the ones that are already burning flare up, and then we have more smoke.”

A water bomber drops liquid relief on the flames.
A water bomber drops liquid relief on the flames.

Hot temperatures and tinder-dry conditions are fueling the flames. With little rain in the forecast, the prediction is many more fires will spark.

This fire season has already been more active than in years past; fires have so far affected more than 300,000 hectares, compared to 15,000 last year.

MacLean says the battle is taking its toll on personnel on the ground.

“It's been since the end of June, and so you can imagine with the fire personnel out on the lines, the heat, the humidity, the fatigue that would come...they're going to have to come and get a couple of days off.”

MNR has declared much of the northwest a restricted fire zone, which means no burning can take place except with special permission.

Anyone caught with an open fire in the restricted zone faces a fine of up to $500.

With files from The Canadian Press

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