By Steve Lambert
THE CANADIAN PRESS
WINNIPEG-The leader of a northern Manitoba First Nation says an evacuation to escape a forest fire was a harrowing experience made harder by the lack of proper infrastructure and a quick way out.
“Before we knew it, we had this huge fire column that was hanging over the entire community,” Wasagamack Chief Alex McDougall said of the evening last week when the fire that had been in the distance suddenly swept toward the reserve.
“We had our moms with their kids on their arms, with whatever they could grab, whatever clothes they had on their back _ the fire behind them _ and we were literally running for our lives.”
Wasagamack was one of three communities evacuated last week because of a large fire that came within one kilometre of some homes and sent thick smoke in the air.
Wasagamack faced a bigger challenge than St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill because it has no airstrip. Its 2,000 residents had to take turns squeezing into small boats and make the 20-minute journey across Island Lake to St. Theresa Point. The effort continued well into the night.
“We were covered in pine needles, embers. And it just turned dark,” McDougall said. Small lights were used on the boats to guide the evacuees safely across the water.
Over the next 36 hours or so, many of the evacuees would go on from St. Theresa Point to Garden Hill, where military transport planes can land. From there they were taken to hotel rooms or large emergency shelters more than 500 kilometres south in Winnipeg and Brandon.
One woman had a miscarriage during the trek, McDougall said, and another died of diabetes-related complications after she fled south.
Two evacuees in Brandon were hospitalized with pneumonia related to smoke inhalation.
McDougall and other Indigenous leaders called a news conference Wednesday to demand an airport for Wasagamack, something they said governments promised more than 50 years ago.
“They deserve infrastructure that keep their people safe,” said Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents First Nations communities across northern Manitoba.
“In this day and age, it’s not acceptable for them to have to leave … the way they did.”
More than 5,000 people in total were forced to flee Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point. More than 1,000 were put up in two large emergency shelters, one in the Winnipeg Convention Centre and another at an indoor soccer complex.
The Canadian Red Cross, which is managing the evacuations for the federal government, said Wednesday it no longer needed the convention centre because more hotel rooms in the city have become available with the end of the summer tourist season.
Some evacuees also found lodging with friends or relatives.
“Less than 375 evacuees stayed at the two shelters (Tuesday) night, with less than 125 at the convention centre,” the agency said in a written statement.
“The remaining evacuees will either move to the soccer complex shelter or to hotel rooms that become available.”
A different fire near the Poplar River First Nation improved this week, which has allowed about 750 people to start returning to their homes. That has also opened up hotel space.