Most Mathias Colomb Cree Nation residents have fled wildfire near community


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Most Mathias Colomb Cree Nation residents have fled wildfire near community's Profile

Most residents of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation have left the northern Manitoba community after being ordered to leave earlier this week due to an out-of-control wildfire.

Residents of the remote First Nation, which includes Pukatawagan, are fleeing the fire, which covered about 10,000 hectares by Friday evening, according to the Manitoba Wildfire Service.

The Canadian Red Cross said Saturday night that as of 9:45 p.m. CT, all but 30 people remained. 

“We are in contact with the remaining group and we will be attempting to get them out of the community either late tonight or early tomorrow morning,” spokesperson Jason Small said in an email to CBC. 

The Canadian military sent two transport planes Saturday to assist in the evacuation. One of them removed 41 people and flew them about 200 kilometres south to The Pas, a spokesperson with Canadian Forces Base 17 Wing in Winnipeg said. 

“Though asked to evacuate approximately 120 people, the situation on the ground is fluid, and when the two Hercules arrived, fewer people required evacuation,” said public affairs officer David Lavallee. 

“Emergency situations like this are dynamic, and it is not unusual for the numbers of people requiring evacuation to change, nor the location to which people are evacuated, especially when multiple partner agencies are supporting evacuation efforts,” Lavallee said. 

Another military aircraft was sent earlier on Friday to airlift people to Winnipeg — about 700 kilometres to the southeast — but wasn’t able to land at that point due to poor visibility.

“We’re just going house to house now just to make sure everybody’s out of the community,” Pukatawagan Chief Lorna Bighetty told CBC News in a phone interview earlier Saturday. 

On Friday night, Bighetty said Keewatin Rail Company sent in six high-rail trains that took approximately 700 people to Sherridon, about 70 kilometres south of Pukatawagan. From there, people were bused to other places by the Red Cross.

Bighetty said nurses and leadership will stay behind until everyone else has left. She said the Red Cross and the province have been helping evacuees travel to Brandon, Winnipeg and The Pas.

“It was really scary yesterday because you could see the fire right close to where we were standing, and you can feel the heat,” Bighetty said Saturday. The smoke has since shifted away from the community, she said, allowing for more people to leave.

Now, she says, a major concern surrounding the evacuations is COVID-19.

“We’re probably, well, going to get sick, because everybody was so close, compact together,” she said. The smoke inhalation worsened the situation, as it created COVID-like symptoms for some people.

Bighetty also said the initial response from the provincial government and the Red Cross to the wildfire was disheartening.

“I want the people to understand when there’s an emergency cry … help the community. Don’t wait,” she said.

“It’s not every day we decide to say, OK, hey, we need help over here.”

The Canadian Red Cross was in the process of setting up a shelter for evacuees from Mathias Colomb Cree Nation in Winnipeg on a Saturday.

“There’s always going to be hiccups, delays, but it’s going fairly well and we’re hoping we’ll have everybody out by tonight,” Small of the Red Cross said earlier on Saturday. 

The plan is to get as many evacuees as possible into hotels, but if space isn’t available, a 600-bed shelter is being set up at the University of Winnipeg’s RecPlex.

“This is obviously not the ideal choice —  we’d rather people go in hotels, but we have this in case it’s needed,” said Small.

‘Calm panic’

Bighetty said community members were in a “calm panic” as evacuations began, and it was a demanding job to provide for everyone since staff could not move fast enough.

“They were quite relieved to see our train arrive there,” said Anthony Mayham, CEO of Keewatin Railway Company. “Everybody was in a panic, of course, but calmness remained.”

Mayham said his company felt compelled to help with the evacuations since its train was one of the only ways out of the community. He said he admires the staff, volunteers and everyone else who has been contributing to evacuation efforts.

There is currently a high risk of wildfire across all of Manitoba due to increased lightning and minimal precipitation, with high to extreme risks in northwestern Manitoba.

Environment Canada has issued heat warnings for much of southern, central and parts of northern Manitoba, with hot, humid conditions expected to last for the next two days.

As of Friday, there were 39 fires burning in Manitoba, according to the Manitoba Wildfire Service.

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