PIKANGIKUM – Canadian Rangers are playing a vital role in the evacuation of a First Nation threatened by a major forest fire.
Chief Amanda Sainnawap declared an emergency and requested military aid late on Wednesday as the fire threatened Pikangikum First Nation. The fire is three kilometers from the community of more than 3,000 people. The fly-in Ojibway community is about 510 kilometers northwest of Thunder Bay.
A combination of Royal Canadian Air Force Hercules aircraft and smaller civilian planes began evacuating 1,200 of the community’s most vulnerable residents on Thursday. They included the sick, elderly, mothers and children up to the age of five.
Canadian Rangers are part-time reserve soldiers and the Pikangikum Ranger patrol was stood up in February when 34 new Rangers completed their basic training.
“The Canadian Rangers are working very hard,” said Captain John McNeil at 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group headquarters at Canadian Forces Base Borden, near Barrie. “So much so they haven’t had time to drink water, eat, or look after themselves, because they are looking after everybody else.
“They are choking on smoke and comforting a lot of frightened individuals in the community.”
The Rangers are compiling the passenger manifests and, with Pikangikum’s main store closed because of a death in the community, helping to ensure the vulnerable and others have food and water.
There were scenes of chaos at the community’s small single runway airport until the Rangers cleared a route for buses to bring evacuees to it. “There were 300 people sitting at the airport and the parking area was jammed until the Rangers sorted thing out,” Captain McNeil said. “They managed to keep people calm and collected.”
Two Canadian Army instructors arrived in Pikangikum on Thursday to assist with the evacuation.
Major Douglas Ferguson, deputy commander of the Rangers in Ontario, said he was impressed by the Rangers. ‘They have shown their mettle,” he said. “They had some rudimentary training in February and they have gone from that to being an organized group with a command and control structure that is supporting their community, which is what we want them to do. This is literally their baptism by fire.”
Sergeant Buster Kurahara, a former band councilor and police officer, is the newly appointed commander of the Pikangikum patrol. He was in Dryden when Chief Sainnawap, who is also a Ranger, phoned him to tell him about the emergency. He drove to Red Lake and travelled by boat to arrive in the community early Thursday to lead the Rangers.
“All his skills are playing well in this emergency,” said Captain McNeil. “When I talked with him he was out of breath from the smoke and embers that are falling from the fire.”