Most residents of the Mathias Columbus Creek Nation have left the northern Manitoba community after being ordered to evacuate earlier this week by an out-of-control wildfire.
The Manitoba Wildfire Service said residents of remote First Nations, including Pukatawagan, were fleeing the blaze, which had burned through 10,000 hectares as of Friday evening.
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 will attempt to remove them from the community tonight or tomorrow morning,” spokesman Jason Small told CBC in an email.
It sent two transport planes Saturday to help evacuate Canadian troops. One of them took off 41 people and flew about 200 kilometers south to The Pass, a spokesman for the Canadian Forces’ 17 Wing in Winnipeg said.
“Although about 120 people were asked to evacuate, the situation on the ground is fluid, and when the two reached Hercules, few people wanted to be evacuated,” said David Lavalle, head of public affairs.
“Emergencies like this are dynamic, and it’s not unusual for the number of people in need of evacuation to change or the location of people to evacuate, especially when multiple partner agencies are supporting evacuation efforts,” Lavalle said.
Another military plane was sent earlier on Friday to airlift people to Winnipeg — about 700 kilometers to the southeast — but was unable to land at that time because of poor visibility.
“We’re going door-to-door right now to make sure everyone is out of the community,” Pucatawagan Chief Lorna Bighety told CBC News in a phone interview earlier Saturday.
On Friday night, Bigetti said the Keewatin Rail Company sent six high-speed trains carrying approximately 700 people to Sheridan, about 70 kilometers south of Pucatawagan. From there, people were boarded elsewhere by the Red Cross.
“Yesterday was scary because you could see the fire right next to where we were standing and you could feel the heat,” Baghetti said Saturday. She said the smoke has since cleared from the community, allowing more people to evacuate.
Now, she says, the biggest concern surrounding the evacuees is COVID-19.
“We were probably going to get sick, because everyone was so close, so tight together,” she said. For some people, inhaling the smoke worsened the condition, causing symptoms similar to Covid.
Bigheti also said the initial response to the wildfires from the state government and the Red Cross was disappointing.
“I want the public to understand that when there is an emergency call … help the community. Don’t wait,” she said.
“Well, hey, it’s not every day that we decide to say we need help here.”
The Canadian Red Cross was setting up shelter for evacuees from the Mathias Columbus Cree Nation in Winnipeg on Saturday.
“There are always setbacks, delays, but it’s going well and hopefully we can get everyone out tonight,” Little of the Red Cross said earlier Saturday.
The plan is to put as many evacuees into hotels as possible, but if space is not available, a 600-bed shelter is being set up at the University of Winnipeg Recplex.
“It’s obviously not the right choice – we’d rather people go to hotels, but we have this if necessary.”
Bighetti said community members were in “stable shock” when evacuations began, and crews couldn’t move fast enough to provide for everyone.
“They were really excited to see our train get there,” said Anthony Mayham, chief executive of the Keewatin Railway Company. “Of course everyone was in shock, but he remained calm.”
Mayham said his company was forced to help with the evacuation because the train was one of the only ways to get out of the community. He said he appreciates the staff, volunteers and others who have been working hard to evacuate.
There is a high wildfire risk across Manitoba due to lightning and light rain, with a high to high risk in northwestern Manitoba.
Environment Canada has issued a heat warning for much of southern, central and northern Manitoba, with hot and humid conditions expected to continue for the next two days.
As of Friday, there were 39 wildfires in Manitoba, according to the Manitoba Wildfire Service.