'Virtually everyone out' as wildfire closes in on Mathias Colomb Cree Nation

·4 min read
Mathias Colomb Cree Nation is seen on Friday surrounded by smoke and an orange sky. Four days of evacuations, sometimes delayed by poor conditions, have forced about 2,000 people from the community. (Submitted by Serena Dumas - image credit)
Mathias Colomb Cree Nation is seen on Friday surrounded by smoke and an orange sky. Four days of evacuations, sometimes delayed by poor conditions, have forced about 2,000 people from the community. (Submitted by Serena Dumas - image credit)

A handful of emergency support workers, along with Chief Lorna Bighetty and her husband, are the only people remaining in fire-threatened Mathias Colomb First Nation in northern Manitoba after four days of evacuations.

An estimated 2,000 residents have left and the Bighettys are poised to join them at some point on Monday.

The chief is just waiting to be 100 per cent certain no one is being overlooked at any campsites around the island-dotted community about 700 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg

"I'm only waiting for one more report. Down the river there's a family of four, and I've sent a crew to check on them," Bighetty said, estimating the camp to be a two-hour boat trip away.

"The people that are out there, they're well-experienced. They know what they're doing … [but] there's an infant involved, so I have to make sure that baby's OK. If the situation is not OK by me, I'll bring them back and get them on a plane.

"It's really heavy smoke around here, so I'm just kind of staying indoors until I hear from them. And then the flight is going to be here for me and my husband to get on."

On Sunday, two mothers and six children were also picked up from a spot on Pukatawagan Lake. A crew from Keewatin Railway Company, using pickup trucks designed to travel on rail lines, went as far as they could in those before shifting to boats for the remainder of the trip to the group.

That group is now safe in The Pas, Bighetty said.

The wildfire near Pukatawagan, a community that's part of Mathias Colomb First Nation, was estimated by the Manitoba Wildfire Service on Monday to be 230 square kilometres in size and less than a kilometre east of the community.

The out-of-control fire was first detected Wednesday and evacuations started the following day. The cause is listed as natural.

A combination of planes, helicopters, trains and rail-ready trucks were used to move community members to safety. Boats were also readied, just in case, but were not needed in the end.

"The Red Cross has concluded its transportation out of the community and virtually everyone is out," Canadian Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said in a text message to CBC News on Monday morning.

"We have people staying in hotels in Winnipeg, Thompson, Brandon and The Pas."

Now the full focus is on the flames.

At one point on the weekend, the fire jumped to an island and there was concern it could jump again into Pukatawagan, Bighetty said.

Fire crews contained it and extinguished the threat but the once-green island is now a blackened mark in the water.

"There's no more trees at all. It's totally gutted," Bighetty said. "It was a beautiful island."

13 people stay behind

Sprinklers were running almost non-stop in Pukatawagan, soaking buildings to protect them from the heat while the island fire posed a threat.

That will continue whenever the flames get near, but the winds have been calm Monday and the crews seem to be keeping the fire from spreading, Bighetty said.

Manitoba Wildfire Service water bombers are working non-stop, aided by more bombers sent by the Northwest Territories. As well, 20 firefighters from Ontario have arrived to help out, the wildfire service said.

The 10 emergency support workers in the community include fire technicians, safety officers and two RCMP specialists. About four residents are also staying behind to help and ensure there are no flare-ups, Bighetty said.

"I did demand them to get on and go to The Pas. I want everybody out of the community; that's what I told them. But they insisted and said they can be helpful," she said.

She ordered them to have a Plan B if they need to escape.

"So they have their boats ready and they have fire blankets that the Red Cross sent to us. They told me, 'Our boats are ready, our canoes are ready. We'll go on the water if need be.'

"So altogether, it'll be 13 people staying in the community."

45 fires burning currently

In a fire bulletin sent Monday afternoon, the province said wildfire danger levels are moderate to high with hot, humid conditions throughout Manitoba.

As of that bulletin, there were 45 fires burning in the province with 10 new fire starts in the past 24 hours.

Some precipitation helped conditions in the southern half of the province, the bulletin said.

But the northwest corner was the main area of concern with new fires starting and heavy smoke impeding suppression efforts.

Smoke conditions will impact several northern communities and continue to be an issue across parts of northern Manitoba as wind conditions shift, it said.

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