TIMMINS, Ont. - A sprawling forest fire that threatened the city of Timmins in northern Ontario was reduced to swathes of smouldering terrain by a steady drizzle Sunday, but emergency officials warned the crisis is far from over.
It will take more than a sprinkle to turn the tide against the fire burning massive stretches of woodland west of the city of 43,000, Mayor Tom Laughren said.
"We need a lot of rain to change the situation," he said Sunday. "But whatever rain we get, with these kinds of temperatures, definitely helps (the Ministry of Natural Resources) and firefighters in their task."
The change in weather signalled a shift in tactics for firefighters dispatched to battle the blaze.
Earlier efforts centred on shielding properties from damage, officials said, noting only a few sheds and a truck fell prey to the flames.
"As the rain increases, we'll shift from value protection to installing control lines around the fire," said Garry Harland, the ministry's fire operations supervisor.
"The fire is so large, you can't go at the whole thing all at once, but we will prioritize the areas and get in there as fast as we can," he said.
The showers that began Sunday afternoon brought welcome relief from the violent winds that fanned the fires and propelled thick, acrid smoke toward the city at various times this week. The pungent cloud sparked concerns in the community over air quality before it cleared this weekend.
The winds also temporarily limited the use of water bombers, a crucial weapon in fighting the flames.
The wildfire shrunk slightly over the weekend to 39,518 hectares from 41,210.
Families packed into the hall where officials held their daily media briefing Sunday, looking to clear up rumours swirling throughout the community. They crowded around the tables, listening with furrowed brows and arms crossed.
"It's all kind of iffy, it's not very clear... We're very worried," said Louise Fournier, who left her home last Monday with only a few days worth of clothes. She and her husband have had to buy more outfits as the evacuation stretched on, she said.
"At this point we don't even know when we can go back home and at least see if our things are still there," she said.
Provincial police said they would continue to patrol evacuated areas to guard against looting.
There was no clear answer for those wondering when they would be allowed to return home.
Randy Pickering, a manager with the ministry, said access to at-risk areas would be restricted "for an extended period of time."
However, no new evacuations were expected.
Hundreds of residents were forced to flee their homes, cottages and camps near Timmins and Kirkland Lake, a community about 140 kilometres southeast battling a separate set of wildfires.
Some were allowed to return but the majority were still displaced as the weekend came to a close.
Those living on Goldthorpe Road in Kirkland Lake were able to go home Saturday evening and residents of the Goodfish and Nettie Lake areas were given the green light for Sunday evening, unless conditions suddenly worsened.
The fire some three kilometres north of town held steady Sunday at 2,635 hectares and no longer posed a threat to the community, the ministry said. It was not, however, considered under control.
An evacuation order for the lakeside community of Kamiskotia near Timmins was lifted late Friday and 300 people were let in.
Another 800 people were still barred from their homes and properties in rural areas near the city.
Natural Resources spokeswoman Michelle Nowak said officials were hoping to move residents back into the Mattagami First Nation shortly, but said "it is too soon to tell" when they would receive clearance to do so.
More than 100 people from the First Nation were relocated to Kapuskasing this week.
A gold mine operated by Lake Shore Gold Corp. that was shut down Thursday due to the fire was set to reopen late Sunday.
There were 30 active fires across the province Sunday, down from 46 the day before.
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