CORNWALL, ONT. -- Forest fires in northwestern Ontario have forced hundreds of residents from a First Nation community to evacuate their homes and flee to Cornwall, Ont.

A full evacuation order was issued for Deer Lake First Nation, about 300 km north of Kenora. The people there were flown 2,000 km east to safety.

"We couldn’t see across the lake. That’s how much smoke there was," said Nathan Meekis.

Meekis and his cousin Austin were helping their community leave safely until they, too, were told to get out fast.

"I was supposed to go to a different place, but they sent me out here. I wasn't even supposed to leave until the last plane but then I showed up to work and they told me to pack my bag. I didn't even know we were coming here until we jumped on the plane," he said.

Meekis is among 530 residents of Deer Lake who are now staying at Cornwall's Nav Centre. They were allowed to bring only a single suitcase with them and it’s unknown when they'll be back home.

"My kids are really homesick and want to go back home," said Larissa Harper, another evacuee.

Some families were able to come to Cornwall together, but others were relocated to different places.

"Families got spread out. My mom is in Thunder Bay right now, alone," said Joseph Meekis.

"You would be very lucky if you are with your family," Austin Meekis said.

The residents of Deer Lake are allowed to leave the Nav Centre and can move freely in Cornwall. The Eastern Ontario Health Unit (EOHU) is part of a support network providing mental health services and COVID-19 vaccines to those who need them.

"Most were vaccinated up north but some didn't get their second dose because they were flown out," explained Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, the medical officer of health for the EOHU.

Last year, the Nav Centre was turned into a quarantine site, hosting more than 100 Canadians who were aboard a cruise ship that was stricken with COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic. The passengers were quarantined for 14 days and allowed to leave after showing no signs or symptoms of COVID-19.

In the meantime, these 530 residents of Deer Lake First Nation must now wait until the fires recede before they can return home, and it's not known when that could be.

"We have to do it for our community," said Austin Meekis. "We have to do what our chief says."