Manitoba premier tours town ravaged by grass fires

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger has toured the southeastern town of Vita, checking out damage after grass fires destroyed homes and farms in the area.

Four families' homes burned down as grass fires raged through the area on Tuesday.

Selinger saw the fire-damaged properties on Wednesday afternoon, as temperatures cooled down, winds subsided, and it began raining in the area.

"Saw several areas where the fire's actually still burning and the volunteers and the firefighters, they're out there trying to tackle it," he told reporters.

"It makes a big difference if the wind stays down in this cooler weather, but this fire needs quite a bit of active management."

The fires also destroyed a bridge on Highway 201 that led to two vehicles crashing through the burnt-out span. Thick smoke drifting across the highway prevented drivers from seeing the bridge was out.

Firefighting crews rushed over to help the two drivers, who were trapped. Once rescued, they were able to walk away without serious injuries.

The grass fires began on Monday afternoon and were fueled by gusting winds and extremely dry conditions.

"The fire jumped mile roads and was billowing straight into town. There was no recourse to contain the fire at all; it was just a rolling fire," said Jim Swidersky, the area's reeve.

"The velocity of winds threw the fire in an insurmountable way."

Many homes along with the local school and a seniors' residence were evacuated on Tuesday, and some area roads were closed, including Highway 503 five kilometres west of Highway 216, and Highway 201 from highways 59 to 302.

By early Tuesday evening, most people were allowed to return but about 20 families were still being told to stay away.

On Wednesday afternoon, Swidersky said the remaining evacuees could return to their homes.

A Manitoba government spokesman said cooler temperatures, rain and successful fire barriers are the reasons why the evacuation order is being lifted.

Selinger said he is impressed with how Vita residents and emergency personnel have been able to protect people and property at such short notice.

This is the second consecutive autumn in Manitoba where dry conditions have been so extreme they prompted many grass fires, the premier added.

Jarvis Podolsky saw two of his neighbours' homes consumed by fire while his was spared.

"I'm sorry to see that happen to them because you lose a neighbour, you lose homes, and …," he said, his voice trailing off.

"This was a nice little circle here. And all of a sudden … you know. It's hard to look out there. The only thing I would say, I was very happy to see nobody hurt."

Sid Foy also lost his home, which was his parents' home before that. They had lived there for 30 years and all that's left now is a blackened foundation, along with concrete steps and a metal handrail going nowhere.

Foy, who was at work when the house burned, said he is shell-shocked by how quickly everything was wiped out and finds it hard to talk about it.

However, Foy did want to say a public thank-you to the firefighters for doing the best they could.

Fire also burned all around the church in town, but the structure was untouched.

Earl Simmons, Manitoba Conservation's eastern region supervisor, toured the Vita region in a helicopter earlier on Wednesday to get a good look at the fire, which he said still covers a significant area.

"The fire is surrounding the whole community at this time. But there's fireguards and breaks to protect the community," he said.

An official from the RM said the fire has been about eight kilometres south of Vita and nearly two kilometres wide.

Adding to the challenges related to Tuesday's evacuation efforts was patchy cellphone service in the area.

When 365 schoolchildren were moved on Tuesday, many parents could not contact them.

Borderland School Division Supt. Krista Curry said the only telephone access was one landline at the Stuartburn church, where the kids had been taken.

"Emotions are driving really high on a day like that. And there was some frustration," she said.

"I mean, we're thankful to the local media who got that message out there. But when you're calling and getting a busy signal, your emotions tend to be heightened."

Most people in southeastern Manitoba deal with MTS service. Curry believes the problem is caused by a lack of towers.

Progressive Conservative MLA Dennis Smook hopes the situation reinforces the need for more reliable cell service in the region.

"I had talked to a couple of fire departments and the FleetNet radios [a wireless MTS network for two-way radios] hadn't been working," he said.

"And with the lack or poor cell service in the area and when the fire department doesn't have a FleetNet, it's challenging to communicate with each other."

Selinger said the province is lobbying the federal government to improve cellular phone service for emergency use in areas with poor coverage.

"We're of the view at the provincial level that cell service providers should have a basic package that allows for emergency services to be provided in areas like this, where there's no other means to do that," he said.

Drivers travelling in the Vita area of the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn are being warned to be aware of cattle, as the fires burned many fences, particularly southeast of the town, and cattle may be wandering loose on public roads.

Meanwhile, Environment Canada has issued an early winter storm warning for the Steinbach area, which includes Vita.

People can expect heavy amounts of rain and snow, as well as strong northerly winds, starting late Wednesday and continuing into Thursday.

In the nearby community of Ross, in the Rural Municipality of Taché, some 200 people were forced from their homes Tuesday.

Most residents are now back, save for seven families still at an evacuation centre in St. Genevieve.

The reeve of Taché said the wind is co-operating and the grass fires are under control.

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