Elaborate operation getting exhausted evacuees to safety
EXHAUSTED and stressed, hundreds of evacuees forced out by smoke and flames from Manitoba’s boreal forest landed by the planeload in Winnipeg and Brandon Wednesday.
By nightfall, the Canadian Red Cross hoped to have about 2,000 of the 3,700 residents from three remote First Nations, located about 600 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, safe on the ground in southern Manitoba.
The evacuation began Tuesday night as winds pushed a 15,000-hectare fire near Wasagamack First Nation. A full evacuation was ordered for the community of about 2,000 because of smoke and the nearby fire.
The Canadian Armed Forces were activated late Wednesday to assist in the evacuation effort.
A flotilla of boats from the sister communities took people by twos and threes, ferrying families in trips of 20 minutes each to cross Island Lake.
Only navigational lights guided the boats through walls of thick, acrid smoke late into the night.
After being transported across the water to neighbouring St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack residents were housed in places such as gymnasiums as they waited to be flown out.
The vast majority of evacuees Wednesday landed in Brandon, but hundreds of medical priority patients from Garden Hill, St. Theresa Point and Wasagamack also arrived in Winnipeg. The RBC Convention Centre was being turned into a temporary shelter for the evacuees.
“Tired,” is how Lloyd Little described himself after arriving at Canad Inns Polo Park in Winnipeg mid-afternoon.
He and his wife, Margaret Little, were among the first 50 medical evacuees to arrive from Garden Hill Wednesday afternoon after a harrowing night with about 250 other people at the First Nation’s tiny airport.
“Our trip wasn’t until 3 o’clock this morning and we’d been waiting at the airport since 5,” Little said.
Winds blew smoke, soot and debris from the fire into the northern First Nation and held up flights Tuesday, forcing the crowd to wait out most of the night until the first flights lifted off early Wednesday.
“That wasn’t human,” joked Little. “I mean it wasn’t caused by people. That was the fire,” he said.
“These are all priority-one people, about 50 people,” said Garden Hill Chief Dino Flett, who flew in with the first arrivals. “They haven’t eaten, most got maybe three hours of sleep last night... They have heart conditions, diabetes, asthma,” he said, looking as tired as everyone else.
The Littles had just returned home after months of being in Winnipeg where Lloyd received regular dialysis. Even the sense of being safe from the clouds of smoke couldn’t ease the heartache of leaving. The evacuation was the last thing he and his wife wanted.
“I’ve been stuck here in Winnipeg since January... and we all just got to go home to visit for three weeks when this happened. We were only there for three days so I wasn’t happy being brought down again,” he said.
“We had about 160 people evacuated with five more planes in the air,” Shawn Feely of the Red Cross told media at a noon-hour briefing. More were lined up to fill the skies over the next 24 hours into Friday.
Overnight Tuesday, the Red Cross pulled together a military-style operation, co-ordinating flights from some 50 charter companies coast to coast, scouring Winnipeg and Brandon, even Portage la Prairie, for hotel rooms as well as conducting hourly updates with the communities directly involved, working with both levels of government and local chief’s organizations in Manitoba.
The scale is massive and nothing like this has been rolled out in Manitoba since wildfires swept the north years ago.
“In the last couple of years this is probably the largest evacuation in one area due to fires,” Feely said.
Ottawa said it’s enlisted the Canadian Red Cross to manage the evacuation, with Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada putting a duty officer in place 24/7 for First Nations requiring assistance.
“I have been in direct contact with the chiefs in the communities affected by the fire to ensure people are safe, to offer support, and ensure they have the resources they need,” wrote Jane Philpott, who was named Minister of Indigenous Services on Monday.
“I commend First Nations officials and first responders for their work under these very difficult conditions,” said Philpott. “We are monitoring the situation closely.”
By early evening, Klassen posted the use of the Canadian military had been approved. “Just waiting for that to translate into action. Hopefully, that means big planes coming to pick up the remaining Wasagamack people,” the MLA posted on Facebook.
The Department of Defence confirmed it would be taking part in the evacuation in a statement emailed to the Free Press late Wednesday.
Garden Hill evacuees Lloyd Little (left) and Shem Flett are relocated to Canad Inns Polo Park.
Smoke from a forest fire burning near Wasagamack First Nation fills the air.