By Steve Lambert, The Canadian Press
WINNIPEG – The weather co-operated Thursday with efforts to evacuate more than 1,000 people from two First Nations communities threatened by forest fires in northern Manitoba.
With thick smoke no longer causing trouble at the airport in Little Grand Rapids, planes and helicopters were moving people out of the community as well as neighbouring Pauingassi, about 260 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
“Things are going smoothly at this point. Our focus is on getting the last people out,” said Jason Small, a spokesman for the Canadian Red Cross.
“As long as everything goes well, we are working towards getting everybody out … by the end of today.”
A dry spring has led to an early forest fire season across Manitoba. There have already been 173 wildfires, compared to an average of 105 at this time of year, the province said.
The blaze near Little Grand Rapids broke out earlier this week and had grown to cover 200 square kilometres.
Chief Raymond Keeper of Little Grand Rapids said homes were damaged in his community but no one was killed.
“Material stuff can be replaced but lives can’t be, so we’re very fortunate,” Keeper said.
“They picked up another small bundle (of people) this morning and they’re just looking to see if there’s any more left.”
The fire knocked out power to the area, but crews were keeping the fire from affecting any more houses.
The chief and council at Little Grand Rapids said they had asked for help Monday and accused the federal government of being slow in responding. As well, thick smoke near the community’s airport initially hampered the evacuation effort.
The Canadian Red Cross, which is in charge of the evacuation, was using chartered private planes, a military transport plane and a military Chinook helicopter. The helicopter was being used primarily in Pauingassi, which has no airport and lies 12 kilometres from Little Grand Rapids.
Small said that by Thursday afternoon, 18 people were left in Little Grand Rapids and about 200 Pauingassi residents were either still in the community or en route to Winnipeg.
The evacuation has so far been more manageable than last year, when several thousand people were evacuated from northern communities at the same time and large emergency shelters were set up in Winnipeg.
The Red Cross said the number of evacuees so far this year is smaller and there are enough hotel rooms in Winnipeg and other communities to accommodate everyone.
Another fire prompted the evacuation last weekend of about 850 people from the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation. They were put up in hotels in Brandon and other centres.
About 100 people from the Kinonjeoshtogan First Nation, evacuated on Monday, were to return home Thursday.
Four water bombers from Quebec and more than 100 firefighters from Ontario have been brought to Manitoba to help fight the fires.