Four First Nations in eastern Manitoba have been evacuated due to wildfires and smoke.
The Canadian Red Cross, which is supporting the evacuations, tells Global News more than 1,000 people from Pauingassi First Nation, Little Grand Rapids First Nation, Bloodvein First Nation and Berens River First Nation have been sent to Winnipeg as of Tuesday morning.
The Red Cross says evacuations of Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids First Nations, which started with the highest health priority individuals on July 12, were completed Monday.
“You could feel the heat. There was actually leaves and spruce needles covering our deck; embers,” says Gary Navess, who adds he’s had a hard time sleeping ever since fleeing Little Grand Rapids less than a week ago with his wife and five young children.
“It was absurd. We didn’t know if we were going to make it. It was so smoky you couldn’t even go outside.”
The evacuations of Bloodvein and Berens River First Nations started Monday and are continuing Tuesday, according to the Red Cross.
“This is the first time Bloodvein experienced anything like that,” said Virginia Thomas, who added a wildfire had made it to the main road by the time she left Bloodvein Monday night.
“We’re trying our best to keep our people comfortable while they’re here.”
Thomas was part of a group of about 150 people who were transported out of the community to Winnipeg, about 250 kilometres away, due to wildfires and smoke.
Since arriving in Winnipeg, Thomas said she has been helping to co-ordinate accommodations for members while they are in the city and is doing the same for the remaining 900 people who had to leave their homes on Tuesday.
“All of a sudden they said ‘get your stuff ready, we’re going,” Navess says.
“We weren’t able to take the big bags, we were just able to take the little bags, so we got everything back home … a backpack about this big; change of clothes, is all they said.”
Curtis Crow, from Pauingassi First Nation, says he’s been in Winnipeg for four days, and has been biding his time checking in on family members who are staying at other hotels.
“Everybody broke down, like their feelings,” Crow says, describing the day he and other community members realized they had to leave.
“It was smoke everywhere … I’m not sure how it’s going to look when we go back.”
Crow says he’s been told to expect to stay in Winnipeg for anywhere between two and three months.
There were 130 fires burning in the province on Tuesday after weeks of hot, dry weather. About two dozen were considered out of control.
There have been a total of 300 fires to date in Manitoba. Strict fire and travel bans were imposed on one area of the province Monday as the wildfire situation worsens.
This means no travel will be allowed to the area, including by those with cottages.
Permanent residents must be ready to leave on an hour’s notice. All provincial burning permits remain cancelled and new permits will not be issued until conditions improve.
‘It’s been very emotional’
The fires also contributed to smoky conditions throughout Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
Thomas said community members are worried about how the fires and smoke will affect the land and animals.
“To think about the animals suffering in the smoke, that really touches us as Anishinaabe people. That is our strength, we learn from those animals,” she said. “It’s been very emotional for us.”
A number have grassroots organizations that have volunteered their services to help the Red Cross and evacuees during their stay in the city.
About 20 members from CommUnity 204, a Winnipeg-based volunteer group, were providing mental health support as well as traditional teachings and medicines for evacuees, Daniel Hidalgo, the group’s co-founder, said in an interview.
Hidalgo added that two members are fluent in Ojibwa, which has been important in relaying information to residents during a time of uncertainty.
“That’s been a huge factor in just calming people down and giving them a sense of familiarity,” he said. “A lot of them just need the reassurance that things are going to be OK.”
Area 4, which is north of the Wanipigow River, east of Lake Winnipeg to the Ontario border including Atikaki Provincial Park, and north to Poplar River, will be put under Level 4 fire and travel restrictions.
‘Reduce your exposure’
Meanwhile, a special air quality statement remains in effect for all of southern Manitoba, including Winnipeg, and much of the western half of the province.
In an alert for Winnipeg sent early Tuesday, Environment Canada warns that smoke from numerous forest fires in northwestern Ontario and east-central Manitoba are producing periods of reduced visibility and poor air quality over much of southern Manitoba.
The smoke is expected to persist through Tuesday with “very poor air quality at times” before improving somewhat on Wednesday as winds shift into the south and push the smoke northward, according to Environment Canada.
“Due to the smoky conditions, individuals living in or travelling to the above noted areas are advised to be aware of potential health concerns that can be associated with current air conditions,” Environment Canada’s statement reads in part.
“Wildfire smoke is a constantly-changing mixture of particles and gasses which includes many chemicals that can harm your health.
“If you or those in your care are exposed to wildfire smoke, consider taking extra precautions to reduce your exposure.”
Environment Canada says those at most risk from the smoke include young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with heart or lung conditions (particularly asthma).
–With files from Abigail Turner, Kevin Hirschfield and The Canadian Press