Fires spark evacuation order for three northern Manitoba First Nations
Some 2,000 residents of a remote Manitoba Indigenous community took turns piling into boats in the darkness as they fled a large forest fire that raced toward their homes.
They were evacuated in small groups, late into Tuesday night, for a 20-minute boat ride to a nearby reserve that has an airstrip, where they were to wait for a flight 600 kilometres south to Brandon or Winnipeg.
“Probably midnight, we were still transporting by boat,” Chief Alex McDougall of Wasagamack First Nation said Wednesday morning.
“Those boats that were equipped with navigation lights were going back and forth, ferrying the evacuees.”
The fire, 770 square kilometres in size, came within 800 metres of some homes on the edge of Wasagamack and remained there Wednesday, the Manitoba government said.
“Manitoba’s water bombers worked on this fire until yesterday evening with only limited success because dense smoke prevented the aircraft from approaching the fires,” Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said Wednesday.
Smoke from the fire also prompted a partial evacuation of people with health concerns from two other First Nation communities — St. Theresa Point, where the Wasagamack evacuees were first taken, and Garden Hill.
The Red Cross, which was managing the evacuations for the federal government, was searching for more airplanes to help transport a total of up to 3,700 people from the three reserves to the south. The small airstrips in St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill mean only small planes, carrying 40 to 45 people each, can be used.
“We’re working with the provincial government and the federal government to source planes and to speed up the evacuation,” said Canadian Red Cross regional vice-president Shawn Feely, who estimated 1,200 people were likely to make it south by the end of the day.
The agency was also planning to set up a large emergency shelter in Winnipeg, if needed, because hotels are close to capacity in the summer tourist season.
Water bombers were bring brought in from the Northwest Territories, Minnesota and Ontario to fight the Wasagamack fire and other blazes that have cropped up following weeks of hot, dry weather.
A 46-square-kilometre fire was within 3.5 kilometres of Poplar River, where residents had been evacuated earlier as a precaution. A smaller blaze was reported six kilometres from the Fox Lake First Nation.
The Wasagamack fire remained the biggest concern Wednesday. McDougall said the winds that had driven the fire close to the community had switched, and the fire had not made any further advance as a handful of officials remained at the scene. Heavy equipment had been placed as a buffer between the fire and the closest homes.
“We’re continuing to monitor that area, so hopefully the wind will continue to co-operate.”
Manitoba MLA Judy Klassen provided this image showing a large forest fire seen burning near Wasagamack First Nation in northern Manitoba on Tuesday. The Red Cross is working to carry out the evacuation of three northern Manitoba communities threatened by nearby forest fires.