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Northern Ontario fire evacuees settle in to Arthur centre

by Kris Svela

ARTHUR - Some 204 residents of the First Nation northern Ontario community of Sandy Lake are settling in to a temporary home at the community centre here.

“We’re the only municipality in this (Wellington) county taking them in,” Wellington North Mayor Tout said on July 21 when the first 75 evacuees arrived after a 12-hour trip from Sandy Lake.

The residents were part of an evacuation of some 7,000 people from various communities that were threatened by an estimated 115 forest fires that spread across northern Ontario.  Sandy Lake is a community of about 2,800 residents close to the Ontario-Manitoba border .

Local officials are estimating the evacuees could be in Arthur for as long as a month, depending on fire conditions. They are being housed in the arena, with food facilities set up at the adjacent curling club.

Tout said he received a call from Emergency Management  Ontario asking if the township would be willing to house evacuees.

According to the mayor, the call came late in the evening on July 19 and by midnight council had decided Arthur would take some evacuees. To make the arrangements, council declared an emergency in Wellington North, opening up a scenario for provincial funding to cover all costs associated with the intake of Sandy Lake evacuees. The emergency declaration triggered resources from the provinces, county and Wellington North to handle all elements of the arrival of the evacuees.

An emergency control command centre was established at the Arthur Fire Department to handle all logistics associated with the influx of evacuees.

When they arrived, emphasis was placed on getting the evacuees settled. Tout said the Arthur facility was chosen because it could accommodate the people and there were no pressing bookings at the arena or curling club.

The evacuees were originally expected to arrive Wednesday, but smoke conditions surrounding Sandy Lake’s airport prevented Canadian National Defense soldiers from getting them out.

Tout said some 50 volunteers were brought in to assist with setting up the arena floor and the upstairs area with cots for evacuees. The mayor said within eight hours the facilities were ready.

Ontario Environment Minister and Perth-Wellington MPP John Wilkinson was also on site when the evacuees arrived Thursday.

“We are grateful that two of our communities are willing to help out,” Wilkinson said of assistance offered by Arthur and Stratford.

Tout said local Canadian Red Cross officials on site have been instrumental in providing the necessary processing work required to ensure evacuees with particular health needs are assisted.

Sandy Lake  resident Andy Linklater, 23, was visibly tired after the 12-hour evacuation that took them from home to Thunder Bay, to Toronto, and eventually to Arthur.

He said residents of the community feared the approach of the fire and have suffered from smoke drifting into the community. Some residents among the group have been treated for smoke inhalation.

On Sunday, Sandy Lake community spokesman Harry Meekis expressed his appreciation to their adoptive community.  

“I’m extremely pleased with the reception and the treatment,” said Meekis, who has lived in Sandy Lake for 53 years.

He arrived in Arthur with his three boys and one daughter. Because of the way the Sandy Lake evacuation procedure was followed, those who were registered first to evacuate were put on a different evacuee list - and that meant Meekis’ wife was settled at Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario.

Meekis, who works as a manager for First Nations projects in the Sandy Lake area, said the fire was only several kilometers from Sandy Lake and, depending on wind conditions, burning embers would blow into the community sparking fears they might ignite new fires on homes and businesses.

Sandy Lake  residents now living in Arthur receive daily updates of the fire status around their community. Band council meetings are held twice daily in Arthur to keep residents appraised. In the curling rink where meals are served, Tout said maps of the Sandy Lake area are displayed to give residents daily updates of the fire situation.

Wellington County communications officer Andrea Ravensdale has been spending 16 hour days on site, handling all media inquiries related to the evacuees in Arthur.

Ravensdale has served as the county’s communications officer since 2006 and is encouraged by the community involvement assisting the evacuees with settling in to their new surroundings.

“I feel we’re really integrated,” she said.

She and Tout  are impressed with being given the honor to attend daily community meetings where Sandy Lake representatives are brought up to date about what is happening in their hometown.

“We’ve been involved in the Sandy Lake meetings which has been an honor,” she said. “We’re trying to make the residents’ of Sandy Lakes stay here as comfortable as possible.”

Nestle Waters Canada donated 4,368 cases of water to the residents shortly after the company learned of the efforts. Other community businesses have also made donations to assist the evacuees, the mayor said. On Sunday, Long’s Home Hardware store was expected to hand over flashlights.

Small town support is a sentiment shared by the mayor, who, when evacuees arrived Thursday, said the priority was they settle in after a traumatic and tiring evacuation.

“Our first priority was their health, their safety, and their lodging,” Tout said.

Security around the facility is tight. The county OPP, private security, the Wellington  Dufferin Guelph Health Unit and Emergency Management Ontario have officials in place around the clock, the mayor added.

Tout said community donations in the early stages have been turned down due to strict guidelines about what evacuees can receive. He said those wanting to assist or make donations should wait until “all the wrinkles” are figured out.

Ravensdale said the visitors  are accepting pre-paid calling cards so they can contact family members stationed in other communities.

The mayor said residents should be proud of their contributions. He cited the Arthur Fire Department, which assisted one Sandy Lake boy, who celebrated his birthday on the weekend.

According to Tout, firefighters arrived with three trucks and their mascot Sparky, who delivered a birthday cake to the boy and drove evacuees around the community center in fire trucks. Evacuees also, according to the mayor, managed to put together a ball team to play in the baseball  tournament hosted on the weekend.

“This is what small communities are all about,” Tout said.


July 29, 2011


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