Chase Spence is one of over 4,000 Red Lake community members who are leaving their homes and possessions behind as he evacuates the area, due to a large and growing forest fire just a few kilometres south of the community.

“I was actually just getting off of work. My manager and I saw smoke on the horizon. It wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t normal. We honestly thought a plane might have crashed.”

Spence says he and his manager then went for a drive to investigate the smoke, before the Municipality of Red Lake and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry reported the fire at just over a few hectares by Monday afternoon.

“I had a front-row seat from a distance from my house. I was seeing fire coming towards my doorstep. It was pretty overwhelming to see that much smoke and the size of it. It grew to over 400 hectares in just over an hour. Seeing that in real-time really opens your eyes.”

Spence says he then chose to stay at home with his family until the official evacuation notice was posted by municipal staff on Monday night. Another release from Red Lake staff on Tuesday says any residents who are still in the community should evacuate immediately, and flights to Thunder Bay have been secured.

“I feel that the evacuation notice was given out too late. We were overwhelmed that they waited so long to call the evacuation, especially with the Red Lake fire in 1980.”

Red Lake’s fire of 1980 was the largest aerial evacuation in Canadian history. Over 3,500 were evacuated by military aircraft to Winnipeg in 34 trips, every 20 minutes, starting in the middle of the night.

“When the evacuation was given out, the roads were bare. There was no one rushing. But the roads quickly began to flood with vehicles. I was shaking. People weren’t showing concern for other people. It was rushed. No one wants to be in that situation.”

However, Spence noted that once the initial chaos subsided, people were more hospitable while waiting in lines of traffic. He says he saw many acts of people offering water and supplies to those in need in other vehicles.

Spence and his family then arrived in Ear Falls where an acquaintance offered shelter, and emergency responders and volunteers were helping to assist with evacuation efforts. He noted that following COVID-19 restrictions was difficult for evacuees.

He noted that places to stay were slim at first, before a number of lodges and resorts opened their doors. Spence’s family is currently staying at the Andy Meyers Lodge in Vermilion Bay.

“Not too sure what will happen next. We’re going to take the next couple of days to relax and take it day-by-day. It’s a bad situation for everyone, but with the amount of support and hospitality across the region, it really puts everyone in a positive place.”

Spence helps run a neighbourhood watch group in the Red Lake and Madsen area, and he helped with initial messaging and evacuation notices for the community.

For more information:
VIDEO: Convoy fleeing Red Lake Fire 49
Red Lake secures immediate evacuation flights