Wildfires force thousands to flee Manitoba First Nation
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Thousands of members of Pimicikamak Cree Nation fled their homes late Wednesday and early Thursday, owing to growing concerns about raging wildfires around the northern community.
“It was chaos last night as the smoke was rolling in,” said Orton Muskego, who has lived on the First Nation, also known as Cross Lake, for most of his life.
On Wednesday evening, Muskego brought his boat out onto the Nelson River to watch water bombers and helicopters douse the flames of a wildfire burning roughly three kilometres away from the community.
The fire had been burning south of Pimicikamak for roughly a week. Muskego knew if it continued to spread, it could lead to an evacuation.
Less than an hour later, that’s what happened.
The local chief and council issued an evacuation order for the community around 9 p.m. Wednesday. At that point, embers and ash were already starting to fall from the sky, Chief David Monias said.
Between 6,000 and 7,000 people left the area overnight, with neighbouring communities providing buses, fuel and supplies to aid in the evacuation efforts.
Evacuees sought shelter in Thompson, Brandon, The Pas and Winnipeg, he said.
Monias reached out to the Red Cross and Indigenous Services Canada for support, but the last-minute evacuation was a local effort, made possible with the help of nearby Indigenous communities, he said.
Between 300 to 400 people remained on the First Nation overnight, in part because there was no way to transport them, Monias said.
Muskego’s wife, children, grandchildren and in-laws were among those who were evacuated.
He stayed behind with a group of other residents to help defend the community from the blaze.
Muskego described a frantic night, as he and others patrolled the community on ATVs searching for encroaching fires. The smoke was so thick in some areas that it made it difficult to breath, he said.
“This is my home, so I’ll do whatever it takes to defend our community. It’s not a big decision to make, you get your family out and then you do what you can to save your home,” he said.
It’s not a big decision to make. You get your family out and then you do what you can to save your home.”–Orton Muskego
As far as Muskego is aware, there was no damage to the community, but a few nearby hunting cabins burned in the blaze.
The province confirmed there are currently eight other wildfires in Manitoba.
According to the most recent provincial reports, the fire near Pimicikamak is roughly 1,883 hectares in size. The Manitoba Wildfire Service is working with ground crews and aircraft to keep it contained.
Wind conditions pushed the fire toward the First Nation overnight, but rain fell in the area Thursday morning and the wind shifted. The favourable conditions are expected to continue for the next 48 hours, the province said.
Decisions about community evacuation are made at the local level, it said.
The area is still considered to be under a state of emergency, but the immediate threat to the community has subsided and some people are already returning home. Community leaders are asking anybody with respiratory issues to stay away from the area until the smoke conditions improve, Monias said.
He estimates there are up to 600 residents with health issues that could be impacted.
Updated on Thursday, May 25, 2023 4:27 PM CDT: Fixes typo