Thou­sands forced to f lee First Na­tions

Cana­dian mil­i­tary joins evac­u­a­tion as north­ern com­mu­ni­ties


HE Cana­dian Armed Forces are get­ting in­volved in the air­lift of thou­sands of peo­ple forced to flee their homes be­cause of for­est fires in north­ern Man­i­toba.

A mas­sive fire threat­en­ing Is­land Lake com­mu­ni­ties had blazed to within 800 me­tres of homes on Wasagamack First Na­tion Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon and forced 3,700 peo­ple to flee their homes.

Two other ma­jor for­est fires are threat­en­ing fly-in re­serves in Po­plar River and Fox Lake.

Sus­tain­able De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Rochelle Squires told a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon the 77,000-hectare fire had burned to within a kilo­me­tre from the clos­est res­i­dence in Wasagamack.

Every­one has been evac­u­ated from the community of about 2,000.

That fire is also threat­en­ing St. Theresa Point and Gar­den Hill First Na­tions in the im­me­di­ate area.

Act­ing on be­half of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, the Cana­dian Red Cross has is­sued an un­prece­dented na­tion­wide call for char­ter planes to air­lift the evac­uees, Shawn Feely, Cana­dian Red Cross vice-pres­i­dent for Man­i­toba and Nu­navut, said at a news brief­ing Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. Some 50 pri­vate char­ter air­lines have pledged planes from across Canada to help with the air­lift. Those pledged planes may not ar­rive soon enough, though.

So the Depart­ment of Na­tional Defence will send mil­i­tary planes to

Thelp the evac­u­a­tion ef­forts in Wasagamack, the depart­ment said in an emailed state­ment Wed­nes­day night. “Our air per­son­nel, sol­diers and sailors stand ready to as­sist and serve fel­low Cana­di­ans who face un­cer­tainty and dis­tress from nat­u­ral dis­as­ters,” the state­ment said.

The state­ment did not spec­ify when the planes would be head­ing north.

Mean­while, Indige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs was “work­ing to es­tab­lish a shel­ter in Win­nipeg for evac­uees of the wild­fires.”

That emer­gency shel­ter is go­ing to be lo­cated at the RBC Con­ven­tion Cen­tre.

“We’re in the mid­dle of plan­ning right now, but yes, we will be an emer­gency shel­ter,” Klaus Lahr, CEO of the con­ven­tion cen­tre, told the

Free Press Wed­nes­day night. “We’re an­tic­i­pat­ing to have be­tween 1,500 and 1,800 cots set up to ac­com­mo­date evac­uees on the third floor of the ex­hi­bi­tion hall.”

The ad­di­tional space is needed to ac­com­mo­date the large num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als dis­placed by the fires, a state­ment from Indige­nous and North­ern Af­fairs said. “As this sit­u­a­tion is evolv­ing, we are keep­ing a close eye on de­vel­op­ments and will be bet­ter po­si­tioned to pro­vide more de­tails soon.”

The wild­fire grew with fright­en­ing speed Tues­day and strong winds blew it through dry for­est to­ward the Is­land Lake com­mu­ni­ties.

Peo­ple with health con­cerns and their care­givers are also be­ing evac­u­ated from Gar­den Hill and St. Theresa Point first na­tions — about 850 from each of the two com­mu­ni­ties. The three First Na­tions are clus­tered close to each other in the Is­land Lake area, about 600 kilo­me­tres north­east of Win­nipeg.

Se­nior pro­vin­cial of­fi­cials weren’t pre­pared to lay the blame on cli­mate change Wed­nes­day, but said the prov­ince just doesn’t see for­est fires of this mag­ni­tude and fe­roc­ity this late in the year.

Gary Friesen, the depart­ment’s fire pro­gram man­ager, said Man­i­toba is see­ing more and larger for­est fires far later in the sum­mer this year than nor­mal, and at a time of year when the prov­ince re­ceives less rain­fall.

Friesen said he isn’t qual­i­fied to say whether the fires are a sign of cli­mate change, but, “We shouldn’t be see­ing this level of ac­tiv­ity at this time of year. It is def­i­nitely above av­er­age, in terms of ac­tiv­ity,” he said.

Mean­while, a 4,600-hectare fire is within 3.5 kilo­me­tres of Po­plar River, and a 2,000-hectare fire had reached within six kilo­me­tres of

Fox Lake First Na­tion Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon.

“Our gov­ern­ment is do­ing ev­ery­thing we can to fight the fires and to help the evac­uees. I can’t imag­ine how fright­en­ing it is,” Squires said.

Friesen said east­ern Man­i­toba ex­pects rain Fri­day, but oth­er­wise, the fore­cast is a con­tin­u­a­tion of the warm and dry con­di­tions which have fed these fires.

The dense smoke around Wasagamack has made it dif­fi­cult for wa­ter bombers to fly close enough to work on the fires. Crews are in­stalling sprin­kler sys­tems to drench homes in the en­dan­gered com­mu­ni­ties.

So far, the for­est fires are burn­ing sep­a­rately. “They’re quite a ways apart,” Friesen said. It was only Tues­day af­ter­noon that the growth and dan­ger of the Wasagamack fire be­came ap­par­ent, he said.

Friesen said there is also a fire in east­ern Saskatchewan that is now only 21 kilo­me­tres north­west of Flin Flon. “Saskatchewan is tapped for re­sources as well,” he said.

Feely said the size of air­craft avail­able and the smoke con­di­tions are mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to get every­one out of the af­fected com­mu­ni­ties. “The planes are rel­a­tively small — we are search­ing for other planes.”

Said Squires: “The res­i­dents are trav­el­ling by boat to St. Theresa

Point and then flown to Win­nipeg and Bran­don.”

Feely said most res­i­dents are be­ing taken first to Bran­don, where more ho­tel rooms are avail­able. When they’re full, res­i­dents will be brought to Win­nipeg. Ev­ery avail­able ho­tel room from Bran­don to Win­nipeg to Thomp­son is be­ing con­sid­ered for the res­cue ef­fort. But with 835 evac­uees al­ready in Win­nipeg from the evac­u­a­tion of Po­plar River last week, the Red Cross ex­pects it will run out of ho­tel rooms be­fore all the evac­uees have been ac­com­mo­dated.

“There’s no one city in Man­i­toba that has enough ho­tel rooms for us, for the evac­uees,” Feely said.

That’s where the RBC Con­ven­tion Cen­tre comes in, where an emer­gency shel­ter will soon be lo­cated.

Red Cross of­fi­cials aren’t rul­ing out the pos­si­bil­ity evac­u­a­tions could grow by thou­sands more. The plan is to evac­u­ate about 3,700 res­i­dents from the Is­land Lake area, but Red Cross of­fi­cials say that num­ber might dou­ble if winds shift and put St. Theresa Point and Gar­den Hill at risk.

Squires said Man­i­toba is re­ceiv­ing help from Nu­navut, and two wa­ter bombers will ar­rive from On­tario Fri­day.

The prov­ince is keep­ing a wary eye on the rest of Man­i­toba. “Con­di­tions are so dry that these things could hap­pen any time,” Friesen warned.

The prov­ince is urg­ing cau­tion about light­ing camp­fires any­where in the back­coun­try, al­though Squires said she has not ruled out a to­tal ban. “We’re as­sess­ing the sit­u­a­tion day by day, minute by minute,” she said.

Mo­ments after the brief­ing, Squires hud­dled with Lib­eral Ke­wati­nook

MLA Judy Klassen, who had been in her home community of St. Theresa Point Satur­day.

On the week­end, “Those fires were just tiny little fires,” Klassen said. “It went from a mere kilo­me­tre wide to 30 kilo­me­tres. The smoke was com­ing into the community.”

Klassen did not ac­cept the prov­ince’s as­sur­ances the fires will re­main sep­a­rate threats. “Our el­ders are say­ing, based on the wind, that the fires are con­verg­ing,” she said.

She agreed with Friesen that huge wild­fires this late in the year are un­usual. “Ob­vi­ously, cli­mate change is real,” she said.

Klassen ex­plained get­ting peo­ple out is dif­fi­cult due to the ca­pac­ity of the air­port at St. Theresa Point and the num­ber and size of planes it can han­dle. “The most planes I’ve seen parked there are two planes. You have planes land­ing, cov­ered in soot and ashes, and they have to be cleaned off” be­fore load­ing up and tak­ing off, she said.

Klassen said there are float planes avail­able, but there is no point in us­ing them un­less they can be flown far enough to en­sure that res­i­dents are not only safe but will have ac­com­mo­da­tions avail­able.

Squires said the prov­ince will is­sue daily up­dates dur­ing the cri­sis.



Evac­uees from the Is­land Lake area board a bus in Bran­don Wed­nes­day after ar­riv­ing by air­plane at the Bran­don Mu­nic­i­pal Air­port.

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