A state of emergency has been declared in the city of Timmins, Ont., as a 24,600-hectare forest fire blankets the area in smoke.
A Ministry of Natural Resources update issued late Thursday afternoon warned that the fire is about 30 kilometres away from the city and is exhibiting "extreme fire behaviour" due to strong winds. It is expected to grow overnight and into Friday.
"The problem is the winds are blowing straight out of the south," CBC meteorologist Nick Czernkovich said late Thursday afternoon. "A 10-degree shift in the winds can make a big difference, but at this point the fire is heading more or less toward the town."
The fire risk is extreme in the area, and the weather Friday could bring both rain and lightning. "It is a double-edged sword," Czernkovich said, adding that there is "big concern" about the next 24 hours.
The ministry said there is concern about shifting winds in the area. Mattagami First Nation declared an emergency and 118 residents were evacuated to Kapuskasing, the ministry said on its website.
Air thick with smoke
CBC reporter Megan Thomas said from Timmins that Mayor Tom Laughren declared the state of emergency because of the smoke, which is extremely thick in the air.
"When you drive down the main street and you look in your rearview mirror it's very ominous and it's also causing an air quality problem," she said. "People are being told to stay indoors if they can, or to go to malls or movie theatres, places where the air is filtered and air-conditioned."
Environment Canada issued a special weather statement late Thursday afternoon saying that the smoke plume is descending close to the ground and will do so for at least several hours, possibly well into Friday. The weather agency warned that future warnings may be required or extended.
The official forecast for Thursday night reads, "Clear. Widespread smoke."
Thomas said the Red Cross is set up to help and areas to the west of the city are under an evacuation order. The city itself is not.
The Ontario Provincial Police said officers will conduct patrols in the area to make sure property left behind is secure. People have been asked to stay off Crown land so no one gets in the way of the fire — or efforts to fight it.
Two major highways leading to Timmins are closed.
Wind causing problems
Wind is causing major problems, Thomas said. In addition to blowing smoke into the city, the wind forced water bombers to be called off earlier Thursday afternoon because the water would not have been effective in the breeze, she said.
Winds were blowing from the south at approximately 20 to 35 km/h late Thursday afternoon, and the ministry said it was possible they could shift to from the south-southwest, with gusts up to 40 or 50 km/h.
The Timmins fire is dwarfing one that's been threatening Kirkland Lake. That blaze, about 2,700 hectares and five to 10 kilometres away from the town, appears to be almost out, though dangerous hot spots continue to keep the town on high alert.
Mayor Bill Enouy said fires can flare up at any moment, and a fly-over with infrared cameras on Thursday morning showed many hot spots.
"It's like a forest that somebody painted black, so there's still lots of fuel out there for a fire if it stands up," he said.
Firefighters remain in place and while the winds are "terrible," they are blowing from the southwest, which doesn't pose an immediate threat to the town of about 9,000.
"If it starts coming from the northwest it becomes a bigger problem because it starts blowing the front towards the community," Enouy said. "We're at the mercy of the gods."
About 300 Kirkland Lake residents who live around lakes outside the town's urban area have already been evacuated from their homes. Some are staying with family or friends or in hotels.
Meanwhile, residents are being kept informed through local media including the town's website.
"The message is don't panic but be prepared," the mayor said.
Premier Dalton McGuinty spoke to firefighters and emergency workers in Kirkland Lake Thursday, thanking them for their continued service.
"Our north is beautiful, but it can also be dangerous. The spring forest fires that have threatened northern towns are a fresh reminder of that," McGuinty said in a statement. "But northerners are tough, resilient and determined — and I know they'll get through these challenges, too."
Falling power lines
Hydro crews are also at work in Kirkland Lake, as some major electrical power lines have fallen victim to the fire.
Hugh Crockett, a transmission superintendent for Hydro One, said that unlike other fires that have destroyed lines and equipment outright, this fire has left Hydro crews in a more precarious position.
“The problem we have here is stuff is half-burnt, so some is in the air and some is not,” Crockett said. “It’s a real safety challenge to get it out without getting anybody hurt because things can let go at any time.”
Crockett said hydro crews have been able to reroute some of the power for the time being and the lights are still on in Kirkland Lake.
No power at mines
Operations at mines in the Kirkland Lake area have been affected by the fires. Kirkland Lake Gold hasn't had power at the site since Sunday and, as a result, production has stopped. Mark Tessier, the chief operating officer of the company, said he expects operations will be back up by the end of the month and, in the meantime, many workers are taking vacation.
"I mean, it's not a big deal. The gold's been down there for a billion years and I think it can wait a few more days," Tessier said. "We are using the downtime to the best of our ability and we'll be up and operating next Thursday hopefully."
AuRico Gold, which owns the Young-Davidson mine located about 70 kilometres west of Kirkland Lake, has also been affected.
The company said its power source has been interrupted and ore processing has been suspended. It also said the operations at the open pit have not been affected, as a separate power line is used there.