Elab­o­rate op­er­a­tion get­ting ex­hausted evac­uees to safety

Winnipeg Free Press - - FRONT PAGE - ALEXAN­DRA PAUL

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.

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