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This article was published 17/5/2016 (1189 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
CADDY LAKE — One after another, cottagers and permanent residents arrived at the Whiteshell after days of forced evacuation to find everything was OK.
The relief was immeasurable, but not unexpected. Not a single cottage or house had burned and there were no losses.
Talk to anyone here and the first thing you’ll hear is how hard the 35 crews of volunteer firefighters worked from sun up to sundown, setting up sprinkler systems on more than 150 properties, manning water bombers at the height of the wildfire and digging perimeters to contain the wildfire across nearly 14,800 acres, more than 130 square kilometres.
But talking about the crews also brings up the fire.
"I could have pinched the bottom of those bombers, they were flying that low," said Hardy May, as he and his wife, Elke May, sat down to a simple dinner of cold cuts in their cottage overlooking Caddy Lake Tuesday evening. "They were pretty efficient."
"We saw it coming," Hardy said, describing the red-hot glow across the narrow Caddy Lake that stretched across the horizon the night before the evacuation more than a week ago.
Most of the 150 property owners in the path of the worst wildfire to hit the Whiteshell in a century were allowed back to their properties Tuesday morning.
Manitoba Sustainable Development and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry lifted evacuation orders for residents around Caddy Lake, Macara Lake, Longpine Lake, Rice Lake and West Hawk Lake, and Ingolf, Ont., at 8 a.m.
Evacuation orders are still in force for Nora and Florence lakes.
Conservation officers from the joint operation manned checkpoints at access roads leading into the Whiteshell checking owners’ documentation until travel restrictions were finally lifted for the rest of the public at 6 p.m.
"There were people here for 8," said one Ontario officer at a checkpoint for the east side of Caddy Lake on the Manitoba side of the border.
"Waiting to get home," her fellow officer added.
Next door to the Mays, Tom and Arlene Dorsett had arrived back home around noon.
"She could hardly wait to get home," Tom said. The couple has lived on Caddy Lake for 60 years, settling here permanently 21 years ago.
The Dorsetts waited out the evacuation with friends in the West Hawk Lake area. The friends had not been evacuated.
"It was like home but not home, you know?" Arlene said of the evacuation period.
"I was scared, it was very scary," she said, showing off digital photos of a wall of flames rising high over the towering spruces just across the lake from their home the night before the evacuation.
The couple recounted their hasty exodus the morning of the evacuation, when a conservation officer rapped on their door at 9 a.m. "You’ve got to get out," Tom recalled the officer saying.
"We were still packing up when the firefighters were putting the sprinkler system up," his wife said
At Green Bay, along Caddy Lake, Grant and Sandy Fisette were entertaining their neighbours, Bob and Margaret Crockett.
Grant stayed behind the morning of the evacuation. As a member of the Southeast Whiteshell Fire Department, he was on duty the entire time.
Relaxing for the first time in days, Grant still looked exhausted but relieved. Their lakeside cottage is their permanent home. A four-metre-long van sat in their driveway, half-emptied, after their return.
They’d managed to save heirloom photographs from the early 1900s and countless family photo albums of their own, as well as calling their neighbours in Winnipeg to get their stuff from a nearby cottage.
There’ll be war stories told here for years after this; they were already starting to flow.
Every story will start with the phrase, "the night before ..."
The last night before the evacuation was terrifying for the Fisettes, the fire roaring up above the spruce across the water, barely a kilometre in from the shoreline that narrows to a point at this location.
"Right out the bedroom window," Grant Fisette said.
"We closed the blinds so we could try to sleep. It was very scary," his wife, Sandy, recalled.
"Our son called today and he said ‘You’ve been through the worst, with this fire all the underbrush will have been burned away. You won’t have to go through this again,’" Sandy said.
Fisette said the volunteer fire crews couldn’t have saved the properties in the path of the fire if it hadn’t been for other volunteer crews that stepped up from all over Manitoba.
The joint fire operations told cottagers that 85 per cent of the Whiteshell wildfire is now contained.
"We’re expecting sunny skies and dry conditions throughout the week and into the weekend. While there is no expectation of growth on the perimeter of the fire, there is still much work to be done," said Karen Passmore, a spokeswoman with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry by email Tuesday.
Alexandra is a veteran news reporter who has covered stories for the Winnipeg Free Press since 1987. She held the medical beat for nearly 17 years, and today specializes in coverage of Indigenous-related issues. She is among the most versatile journalists on the paper’s staff.
Updated on Tuesday, May 17, 2016 at 9:01 PM CDT: Updates with writethru
9:55 PM: Minor edits
May 18, 2016 at 1:08 PM: Adds video