By The Canadian Press
WASAGAMACK, Man. – Some 2,000 residents of a remote Manitoba Indigenous community took turns piling into boats in the darkness as they fled a large forest fire that raced toward their homes.
They were evacuated in small groups, late into Tuesday night, for a 20-minute boat ride to a nearby reserve that has an airstrip, where they were to wait for a flight 600 kilometres south to Brandon or Winnipeg.
“Probably midnight, we were still transporting by boat,” Chief Alex McDougall of Wasagamack First Nation said Wednesday morning.
“Those boats that were equipped with navigation lights were going back and forth, ferrying the evacuees.”
The fire, 770 square kilometres in size, came within 800 metres of some homes on the edge of Wasagamack and remained there Wednesday, the Manitoba government said.
“Manitoba’s water bombers worked on this fire until yesterday evening with only limited success because dense smoke prevented the aircraft from approaching the fires,” Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said Wednesday.
Smoke from the fire also prompted a partial evacuation of people with health concerns from two other First Nation communities — St. Theresa Point, where the Wasagamack evacuees were first taken, and Garden Hill.
The Red Cross, which was managing the evacuations for the federal government, said late Wednesday it had partnered with the Department of National Defence and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada to provide two Hercules airplanes to support the evacuation.
The planes were expected to fly between the Island Lake area and Winnipeg throughout Thursday.
A total of 3,700 people were to be evacuated from the three reserves. The small airstrips in St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill mean only small planes, carrying 40 to 45 people each, could be used.
The Red Cross was also working with the City of Winnipeg to set up a large emergency shelter in Winnipeg at the RBC Convention Centre.
Water bombers were bring brought in from the Northwest Territories, Minnesota and Ontario to fight the Wasagamack fire and other blazes that have cropped up following weeks of hot, dry weather.
A 46-square-kilometre fire was within 3.5 kilometres of Poplar River, where residents had been evacuated earlier as a precaution. A smaller blaze was reported six kilometres from the Fox Lake First Nation.
The Wasagamack fire remained the biggest concern Wednesday. McDougall said the winds that had driven the fire close to the community had switched, and the fire had not made any further advance as a handful of officials remained at the scene. Heavy equipment had been placed as a buffer between the fire and the closest homes.
“We’re continuing to monitor that area, so hopefully the wind will continue to co-operate.”
— By Steve Lambert in Winnipeg