Wildfires threaten central Manitoba communities

Some 2,000 people remain out of their homes

THE PAS, Man. — About 2,000 people remained out of their homes Friday as fire crews battled wildfires threatening two communities in central Manitoba.

Residents from Easterville and the Chemawawin First Nation, 450 kilometres north of Winnipeg, were ordered to leave on Thursday as the fires crept to within half a kilometre.

Volunteer firefighter Vincent Lachose said it was like a ghost town.

“We were out last night going door-to-door,” said Lachose. “In the years I’ve lived here, I’ve never seen it this quiet.”

Chief Clarence Easter, who was in Winnipeg, said he’d heard reports of damage but hadn’t confirmed them. Manitoba Sustainable Development said there were no reports of losses, and the office of the Fire Commissioner said sprinklers had been put out to protect the homes in both communities.

Easter said he wasn’t going back to the First Nation because it was blocked off.

“Right now we’re still under evacuation notice. Until that’s removed, we can’t go home. It’s unsafe,” Easter said. “We’re trying to assess how many people we have in the city, where they’re at and trying to accommodate everybody and keep everybody safe, that’s our main objective.”

Shawn Feely of the Canadian Red Cross, which was handling the evacuation from the reserve, said some residents drove out themselves, while about 500 were taken by bus to Manitoba’s capital.

“We sent them to Winnipeg and we are hosting them in hotels, providing food, shelter and clothing, and any other necessities that they might need,” Feely said.

“We also have a group of about 100 in The Pas.”

Feely said about 200 people stayed behind to fight the fires.

The last few buses, along with four Red Cross workers, were leaving Friday morning, he said.

“There’s a lot of smoke in the community. Flames were not in the community, (but) they’re on the outside,” said Feely, who added the Red Cross was working closely with First Nation officials.

The Red Cross was not asking for donations for evacuees.

“At this point there’s no need. The fire’s not in the community. We have an agreement with the federal government to support and there’s no plan at this point in time to go appeal.”

The Manitoba government was handling the evacuation of Easterville and said about 70 from that community went to The Pas.

A government update said the fire was about three square kilometres in size. Seven ground crews, two water bombers and four bulldozers were holding it at the edge of the communities.

A graduation ceremony on the Chemawawin reserve was cut short Thursday before grads got their diplomas because of the evacuation order.

Melissa Houle of Easterville, who attended the ceremony, said the grad started at 3 p.m. but half an hour later people got word from the Red Cross to get out.

She drove her family through the night to get to Winnipeg.

“I packed my bag and jumped into my truck and took all my nieces and my nephews with me,” she said.

Arlene Young said she and her three young children didn’t even have time to pack a bag, so when they woke up this morning in a hotel in Winnipeg, they didn’t have even a brush or clean clothes.

But since her three-year-old daughter has breathing problems, “we’d rather be here than to be around smoke.”

June Thomas of Chemawawin spent Thurday night in a tent with her family a safe distance away.

“I think most of us were shocked that happened,” she said. “I know how it feels to be homeless _ kind of frustrating. But at least we’re OK.”

A total of 119 wildfires have been recorded in the province to date. The average for this time of year is 236.

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