Some wildfire evacuees return home to northeast Manitoba, but more than 2,000 stuck in limbo

·4 min read
A wildfire tears through trees near Bloodvein First Nation. The community was evacuated last week and has no sense of when they'll be able to return home. (Submitted by Ryan Klassen - image credit)
A wildfire tears through trees near Bloodvein First Nation. The community was evacuated last week and has no sense of when they'll be able to return home. (Submitted by Ryan Klassen - image credit)

Evacuees from Red Sucker Lake First Nation in northeast Manitoba began to return home Monday after fleeing wildfires, but more than 2,000 people from four other First Nations are still stuck.

The Canadian Red Cross, which is co-ordinating flights, says about 200 community members staying in Winnipeg and Brandon will be back home by Tuesday.

The people from Red Sucker Lake arrived in the south about four days ago.

There are still more than 2,000 evacuees from Pauingassi, Little Grand Rapids, Berens River and Bloodvein First Nations staying in hotel rooms, and they aren't sure when they'll be able to return home.

Justin Fraser/CBC
Justin Fraser/CBC

No timeline for return

Ronnie Duck is staying in downtown Winnipeg waiting to return home to Bloodvein, about 250 kilometres north of the provincial capital.

"I've been asking everybody, 'When do we get to go home?' And so far nobody's been telling me anything," he said.

There is no timeline yet for when the people from the other four First Nations will return, according to the Red Cross.

CBC
CBC

Bloodvein councillor Ellen Young says it was sunny and the weather was nice earlier Monday, but then the wind changed.

"We are just engulfed in smoke again and it's very thick. I was hoping, 'Oh, this is going good. Maybe our people will be able to come home.' But not these kind of conditions," she said.

"It's hard because I know people miss home, I know children miss their homes. But I would prefer them to be bored and safe over there than coming down with some respiratory problems here because there is no one at the nursing station," she said.

There are currently 128 active wildfires in Manitoba, with 10 new ones reported over the weekend, Manitoba Wildfire Service said in a release on Monday.

Young says there are two fires affecting Bloodvein at this time, and the smoke is even worse than when people left a week ago. Recently there was a thunderstorm, which brought a little rain, but lightning started yet another fire.

"I keep saying, I hope people pray for rain because we haven't had enough rain to make a dent on this fire at all."

There was some good news, though, as Manitoba Hydro says it has restored power to three communities where wildfires destroyed the hydro lines.

Bloodvein, Berens River and Poplar River First Nations all had power restored on Sunday night, said Scott Powell, a spokesperson for the utility.

Submitted by Manitoba Hydro
Submitted by Manitoba Hydro

There's still no power in Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids, though. Powell says fires in the area mean crews can't get close enough to estimate a time of restoration or calculate how many poles have burned down.

"The fires are really right in the vicinity of the lines serving those communities," he said. "Restoration work is going to have to wait until the area is safe."

Day camps keep kids occupied

It's very challenging for families to be stuck in their hotel rooms, says Jackie Anderson, who is co-ordinating day camps for children who have been evacuated through Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, a Winnipeg-based, Indigenous-led community service organization that is one of many groups teaming up to help.

The purpose of the camps, she said, is to keep the kids busy and engaged as "being displaced from their community and not knowing if you have a community to go home to" is "just a very traumatizing time right now."

Many of the children are talking about the dogs and cats they had to leave behind, she said.

Anderson says Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata is working with evacuees from the four First Nations at 17 hotels in Winnipeg.

Every day, kids are picked up in school buses and taken to parks, the zoo and the beach.

"Just getting them out of that hotel room, because they're not, of course, allowed to be walking around the hotel just because the strictness with COVID … some of these families have five or six kids. I just couldn't imagine them being bottled up like that and not have anywhere to go," she said.

Donations still needed

Other Winnipeg organizations are doing what they can to help.

Shop Take Care has been collecting donations of clothing, toiletries and other essentials for evacuees.

"It's been really incredible," said Jillian Zdunich, owner of the queer-run, gender-inclusive clothing consignment store.

"The folks that have been doing the donations need the most recognition through this, because it's pretty humbling how much support there's been so far."

Shop Take Care/Instagram
Shop Take Care/Instagram

Zdunich got involved after connecting with Helene Estrada, with the Southeast Resource Development Council Corp., which is involved in co-ordinating distribution of donations.

Shop Take Care has already sent two large shipments of goods to evacuees, said Zdunich.

Footwear, clothing for all ages, hygiene products, diapers and formula are still needed. Drop-offs can be made at either of two locations from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. CT, Monday to Friday, said Zdunich.

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