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Although no official cause of the fire has been determined at this time, the fire has blazed miles of trees, wildlife, and the main hydro line connecting the communities of Pickle Lake, Mishkeegogamang (Osnaburgh), Cat Lake, Slate Falls, and Musselwhite Mine.
The communities and mine have been without power since July 10, which has spurred the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) fire team to create a special division in the fire line to allow Hydro One access to their poles.
“We have probably 90 staff working on site at the staging area, we also have three Hydro One helicopters on site, and 30 pieces of heavy, off-road equipment,” said Gord Caul, of Hydro One.
Hydro One had over 80 poles destroyed by the fire, and were re-constructed in two phases, dependent upon the fire direction, and permission from the MNR.
“The crews are working very closely with the MNR, as the fire still isn’t under control, and is still posing a threat to our power lines,” said Caul.
Caul said they were planning on restoring power to the communities by July 18, but were successful in having the restoration done by the evening of July 15.
As of the afternoon of July 18, Caul reported, “Power was restored at 8 p.m. Friday night, but the fire has switched directions, and last night, had crossed back over our line again, and has burnt more structures. Right now, we’re trying to get in there to do an assessment of how much damage there is.”
How the communities are coping
The Township of Pickle Lake Mayor, Roy Hoffman says the community has faced hardships, but overall are doing okay. With many residents having hundreds of dollars of food being spoiled, most of the community has rallied together to support one another.
The community is quite well set up with back-up generators in place, and has all their key facilities still maintaining a power supply.
“As a community, we’re doing pretty good. Our health clinic and town office are fully powered; the OPP station, fully powered; community hall, full standby power, where the air conditioning and everything is working; water plant, fully powered; sewage plant, fully powered,” said Hoffman.
“Everybody seems to be working fairly well as a community, we have neighbours sharing their generators with other neighbours, we have the community hall opened up. I think we had almost 80 people last night for dinner. We had roast beef on a bun, and we’re doing the same thing tonite and tomorrow night another community dinner.”
Hoffman says the biggest worry right now is the availability of propane to the community. Due to regulations, the town is not able to get large quantities of propane tanks filled and are making arrangements with Try-Smith propane to get some assistance to the residents.
The community of Cat Lake is now under evacuation, with 140 residents transported to Kapuskasing and 108 in Matachewan.
The complexity of Red 084 has caused the local MNR fire teams to ask for assistance from other provinces. With crews coming in from British Columbia, and three additional bombers with a bird dog coming in from Quebec, the local crew is still in need of more help.
When asked at what level does the fire need to get to request assistance from other provinces, Red 084 Incident Commander, Jack Welch, said, “It depends on a number of things. One would be the situation and complexity around this fire. Obviously for our fire, Red 084, the major concern here is the main Hydro corridor going through the middle. It’s very, very critical that we get that going.”
“Among other things out here, there are a number of outpost camps, tourist operators, a lot of high value stuff in here,” said Welch. “With all the other fires in the area, we had to call in for help.”
The fire has accumulated over 6,000 hectares in only four days, almost doubling in size. Red 084 is still classified as “not under control”, and is steadily challenging the crews with the changing wind directions causing an erratic fire pattern.
Welch says due to the surrounding fires, and the smoke from Red 084 itself, it has been very difficult to fight the fire as a whole, due to the amount of smoke in the area.
“We’re having a very difficult time today, (July 14) we got in five more crews today. We have about 18 or 19 crews camped out on this fire right now, with four people in a crew,” said Welch. “We have requests in for a whole bunch more, but they’re spread pretty thin all over the place and there are only so many we can get.”
Welch said a large quantity of cut wood belonging to Domtar, a future wood supply, has perished in the blaze. Camps and tourist outfitters have been supplied sprinkler systems to help with the dry conditions, and assist in keeping the fire from reaching the facilities.
The regional picture
As of July 18, there were 96 active fires in the Northwest Region of Ontario, burning an area of about 254,000 hectares. On July 17, there were 16 new fires reported, some spreading further south to include the Kenora and Thunder Bay districts.
This brings the season total in the region to 365 fires and an area burned of 258,292 hectares.
A Restricted Fire Zone Order has been declared for Northwestern Ontario in an area bounded by the CNR rail line, just north of Opasquia Provincial Park, west of Wabakimi Provincial Park to the Manitoba border. The order is in place to reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires during a period of high fire hazard.
By Ally Dunham