The lights are back on and the fridges are running again in two eastern Manitoba communities evacuated due to wildfires in July, allowing hundreds of people who have spent months in Winnipeg hotels to finally return home.
Power was restored to Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations at noon on Saturday, a spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro told CBC News.
The fly-in First Nations, which are roughly 20 kilometres apart and about 265 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, have been without power as crews worked to repair the power line damaged by wildfires earlier this summer.
Little Grand Rapids Chief Raymond Keeper says most of the community members who have been staying in eight Winnipeg hotels since July will likely be able to fly home Monday, while those staying in four other hotels are expected to be able to follow the next day.
“I’m just happy that they will be returning. Some people have been begging to go home and I’ve been trying to bear with them and telling them, ‘It’s not long,'” he told CBC on Saturday.
“I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up until I got the final word.”
Both communities were evacuated due to wildfires in July.
While residents of a number of other First Nations were able to return home earlier in the summer, Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi community members couldn’t go home even after the threat from the fires had passed, because of damage to dozens of hydro poles providing power to the area.
Manitoba Hydro’s spokesperson told CBC that crews have now replaced all 91 poles, and repaired 35 structures that had been damaged between Little Grand Rapids and Bloodvein First Nation.
The Canadian Red Cross is currently supporting about 1,500 evacuees from both areas.
The news of an upcoming return home “makes me feel pretty good,” said Ashley Moore, who is from Little Grand Rapids. “We want to go back home.”
She said her community is a dry community, and some are struggling in Winnipeg with alcohol.
“It’s too much drama and fighting” in the city, she said, where “it’s so easy to get access for stuff.”
Alcohol led to the death of her brother a week ago, who was only 45 years old and on dialysis, Moore said. She doesn’t believe that would have happened if they’d stayed in Little Grand Rapids.
“We’re happy we’re going home.”
The work of repairing the hydro line was made challenging by the lack of road access — meaning much of it had to be done by helicopter, Manitoba Hydro previously told CBC. The difficulty of setting poles in rocky Canadian Shield terrain and weather conditions also caused delays, Hydro said.
In mid-September, the Crown corporation estimated it would take roughly four to six weeks to restore power.
Right now, Keeper said work is being done to get homes ready for their families — flushing out stale water from holding tanks and refilling them with fresh supplies.
It has been a difficult summer for the community, the chief said.
Several community members have died while in Winnipeg, which has been hard on everyone, he said.
Not being at home was also hard on children, many of whom began their school year in hotel rooms instead of classrooms.
“Unfortunately, our summer went by with no enjoyment from the people,” said Keeper.
“I know the kids used to have so much fun swimming on the docks there, and they weren’t able to do that this year. It’ll be nice to see them playing and going back to school — hopefully back to normal eventually.”
Keeper’s time as chief of the First Nation has been been challenging, he said — including a previous evacuation in 2018.
“I don’t know what else I can put up with — two evacuations and one [pandemic]. That’s a lot for one person.”
No return date yet for Pauingassi
Evacuees from Pauingassi First Nation, who are staying at many of the same hotels as those from Little Grand Rapids, told CBC they don’t have a clear return date yet.
CBC has also reached out to the Pauingassi’s chief and council.
A spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross said an update would be available Sunday.
“Try to get back home, yeah. We’ve been staying here too long,” said Pauingassi’s Gilbert Keeper, who is staying at a Winnipeg hotel with his wife. His two young grandchildren had stayed with them overnight Friday.
He said he was last told it would be two weeks before he could return home, but is now waiting for an update. He wants to get back to fishing and hunting, he added.
“‘Cause I’m getting bored here in Winnipeg. I’m not a city person.”