Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vita family clings to faith after losing home to fire

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VITA -- A couple here is leaning on their religious faith today as they inspected the rubble that used to be their home.

"We don’t turn from the Lord now," said Margaretha Martens. "We are safe and we don’t question His ways."

She and her husband, Jacob, returned to Vita this morning to see the charred aftermath of a wild fire that swept thourgh the edge of town on Tuesday afternoon.

While they have their faith, they no longer have material possessions.

When firefighters pounded on their door at 12:50 p.m. Tuesday, and warned that a raging fire was only minutes away, they fled with only the clothes on their backs.

This morning, Jacob peered into the smoldering ruins, trying to see a metal strongbox that held the couple's personal papers, including insurance policy on the house that had an estimated value of $125,000.

The couple said it's too early to say if they will continue to live in Vita. For now, they are being surrounded by the loving support of their seven grown children, several of whom inspected the rubble with their parents, and their church family at Sommerfeld Mennonite Church in New Bothwell.

At least three homes in the town were destroyed, as well as a bridge.

Other families were counting their blessings today. A mother recounted this morning she only had 20 minutes to pack up children and escape.

 

Rebecca Subbert said firefighters knocked on her door at 12:50 p.m. Tuesday with an emergency warning that her family was directly in the path of an out-of-control fire pushed by strong winds.

Subbert quickly packed up her daughter Kinna, 2, and Ashton, 5, and by 1:10 p.m., only 20 minutes after the first warning, flames were licking at her property.

"We were freaking out," she said this morning.

"Flames were eight feet high and we could hardly see anything because the smoke was so thick."

Fortunately, the flames only charred the lot of the home that Subbert is staying with relatives, and melted car parts in their back yard.

Two women in two vehicles plunged through the bridge Tuesday afternoon when they drove around a partial roadblock and over the burning bridge that was cloaked in smoke. The vehicles slipped through damaged pavement and dropped several feet onto a dry creek bed.

The women screamed for help and nearby firefighters, who were watering down houses only a few hundred feet away, rushed to help save the women.

This morning their vehicles remain burned and blackened in the creek bed.

A state of emergency was declared shortly after noon on Tuesday and the town of 350 was evacuated. Firefighters and town officials went door to door in fire trucks, SUVs and all-terrain vehicles to make sure nobody stayed behind.

Despite the fact residents were told to leave immediately, RM of Stuartburn Reeve Jim Swidersky said the evacuation was orderly.

"There was no time to pay attention to people's moods or to panic. It was, 'Get everybody out,' " he said.

In front of Vita's hospital Tuesday, a half-dozen wheelchairs were strewn about, a sign patients were whisked away to safety at a moment's notice.

The wildfire left firefighters feeling helpless, said Mike Purtill, a fire investigator with the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner.

"It's a fire you can't fight. It moves so fast it generates its own wind and makes so much heat. It's controlled by Mother Nature. It picks and chooses what's going to burn," he said.

A wildfire doesn't allow firefighters to take any preventive action away from the heart of the blaze because of its speed and unpredictability, Purtill said. "It's very dangerous for firefighters."

Purtill wouldn't hazard a guess how the fire started, but he knew Vita dodged the mother of all bullets.

"I don't even know where it came from. The entire town could have been completely destroyed," he said.

By nightfall, numerous small fires were still burning outside the town limits.

The call to allow residents to return to their homes was made just before 6 p.m. Roman and his wife, Jane, used the opportunity to pile as many personal belongings as they could into their vehicles. With much of the ground surrounding their bungalow still smoking -- an old pickup truck and a canoe were casualties of the fire -- they knew it was too dangerous to spend the night. Instead, they were heading to a hotel in nearby Steinbach.

"We're fortunate. We've still got our roof. It's a little smoky inside," he said.

Residents southeast of Vita had not been cleared to go back to their homes as of late Tuesday. Swidersky said fires burning near about 20 homes still had the potential to rear up and get out of control quickly if the wind didn't co-operate.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

 

A look at the wildfire that raged in Vita, Oct. 2-3, 2012.

 

Hot, dry conditions fuelling brush fires

THE province said Tuesday afternoon it was sending three water bombers to douse fires near Vita and Richer. Two more planes from Ontario are helping out.

Hot, dry conditions and high winds are driving grass and brush fires in several areas, including near Milner Ridge and St. Malo. Municipal and provincial staff are also fighting fires in the municipalities of Grahamdale and St. Laurent.

A government spokesman said Tuesday Premier Greg Selinger is planning to visit the southeast fire region this morning.

Meanwhile, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship issued backcountry travel restrictions for the area on Tuesday. Included is the area east of PR 302 to the Ontario border and south of the Trans-Canada Highway to the U.S. border. Backcountry travel is now allowed by permit only.

Burning permits were cancelled on Sept. 30. No new permits will be issued. All forest, mining and quarry operations will only be allowed to operate by permit. Campfires, including those in provincial parks, will only be allowed from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. in approved fire pits. For information on the travel restrictions, contact the local Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship office or call 1-204-345-1444.

Under these travel restrictions:

-- backcountry travel, including hiking and all-terrain vehicles, will not be permitted;

-- canoeing and boating will be restricted to developed shorelines for landing/launching;

-- camping will only be allowed in developed campgrounds; and

-- aircraft will only be permitted to use lakes with developed shorelines or docks.

video player to use on WFP

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2012 A3

History

Updated on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 at 7:27 AM CDT: new headline

10:59 AM: Updates from the scene a day after the fire.

11:32 AM: Updates with owner of home destroyed by fire.

11:41 AM: corrects spelling of Margaretha Marten's name

2:19 PM: Corrects typo.

6:10 PM: Corrects name spelling.

8:43 PM: adds video

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