Canadian Rangers assisting again in second Pikangikum fire evacuation

Sergeant Buster Kurahara, right, with Pikangikum Canadian Rangers.
Sergeant Buster Kurahara, right, with Pikangikum Canadian Rangers.

By Peter Moon

Canadian Rangers have been called out for the second time in less than a month to assist in the evacuation of an isolated First Nation threatened by an out of control forest fire in Northern Ontario.

Pikangikum First Nation, an Ojibway community 510 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay,  declared an emergency on July 5 and asked for military assistance.

Major Charles Ohlke of the Canadian Rangers
Major Charles Ohlke of the Canadian Rangers

“The Rangers are going to be assisting with manifesting and loading evacuees onto the evacuation planes,” said Major Charles Ohlke, a Canadian Army officer. “They’ve done this exact same operation before, just a few weeks ago, and they did an outstanding job then. They’ll be using that experience to help the people of their community again in this emergency.

“The forest fire is to the south and southwest of the community, about 10 kilometres away, and is increasing in size daily. It’s creating a lot of smoke which is moving over the community.”

Some residents of Pikangikum are reporting on social media that smoke and falling ash from the fire is causing difficulties with breathing.

Sergeant Buster Kurahara and Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap.
Sergeant Buster Kurahara and Pikangikum Chief Amanda Sainnawap.

“Smoke is inevitable,” said Amanda Sainnawap, the community’s chief on Facebook, “it’s going to get really bad because of the size of the fire – once the smoke comes into the community, the airport may be shut down.”

Sergeant Buster Kurahara, commander of the Pikangikum Ranger patrol, said the smoke is so bad the Rangers are wearing face masks. “The smoke is hard on everyone and you can’t see far,” he said. ‘But the Rangers are proud to be helping our people.” 

The chief and members of the band council requested military support during the evacuation and the army authorized the use of the local Rangers, who are part-time army reservists.

The new Pikangikum Ranger patrol graduated its first 34 Rangers in February after only a week’s basic training. They took a lead role when an emergency was declared on June 5 because of a forest fire that got to within two kilometres of the community. The Royal Canadian Air Force flew more than 1,700 residents to safety while an estimated 500 evacuated themselves by boat. 

Pikangikum has a population of just over 4,000 and almost half refused to evacuate from the first fire and stayed in the community until the emergency was declared over on June 9.

Social media users suggest some of Pikangikum’s residents are reluctant to evacuate a second time, despite increasing smoke.

The Rangers are drawing up lists of the community’s most vulnerable – the sick, elderly, pregnant mothers, and children – to get onto the first evacuation planes. They then assist them in getting onto the aircraft.

Two Canadian Ranger instructors are taking military communications equipment to Pikangikum, where they will liaise with the chief and council, the Rangers, and other assisting agencies.

(Sergeant Peter Moon is the public affairs ranger for the 3rd Canadian Ranger Patrol Group at Canadian Forces Base Borden.)