Three out-of-control forest fires are burning near Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, blanketing the small northern community with thick smoke and forcing hundreds from their homes.
"It’s pretty scary for a lot of people. They’re worried they’re going to lose their household and whatever stuff they’ve got. It’s pretty smoky right now. I stayed out last night and this morning and I’m starting to feel it in my throat," Sapotaweyak Cree Nation (SCN) Chief Nelson Genaille said.
The fires were sparked Saturday and have been designated as man-made, according to the provincial government’s wildfire database. However, they didn’t set the community on edge until Sunday night, when 300 people were evacuated at 10:30 p.m.
The most vulnerable residents — elders, young children and those with medical conditions — were loaded onto buses and shipped out to The Pas and Swan River. The rest of the community remains on standby for a full evacuation, with many gathering at a local school to wait for evacuation orders, Genaille said.
The fires have collectively torched 42 hectares of land. On Sunday, five water bombers and two helicopters were called in to battle the blazes, which began to creep closer and closer to homes.
The provincial Emergency Measures Organization and Red Cross are on site to help with evacuations, in addition to the conservation officers and forest firefighters out trying to break the fires.
One fire in particular, encroaching on the community from the southwest, has residents the most concerned, Genaille said.
"We don’t know if there were embers flying around from one of the other fires, or if it could be arson, but it hit at an old burn site where there’s dry wood and it just flared up like matchsticks. It went four hydro poles, maybe five hydro poles, up. It was just igniting everything," Genaille said.
The destruction of the Manitoba Hydro poles knocked out power in the community Sunday, but it was restored by Monday morning, Genaille said.
SCN’s only exit road is also located on the southwest corner of the community, which has residents scared they might get boxed in if the fire can't be contained. Genaille, who was running on no sleep when reached by the Free Press Monday morning, said they’re preparing for the worst, but hoping a full evacuation won’t be needed.
"We’ve got lots of help. We’ve got lots of people waiting on school site. We’re waiting on word from the (Emergency Measures Organization), they’re helping and assisting with coordination and working with (Manitoba Sustainable Development)," Genaille said.
"We just can’t get stuck here, otherwise we’ll be at the will of the smoke and fire. It’s just so dry in the bush right now."
SCN is located about 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg and has a population of 1,000, according to the community’s website.
One other fire remains out of control in Manitoba, according to the provincial government’s wildfire database, which was also designated man-made and detected Saturday. It has burned 32 hectares of land north of Little Saskatchewan First Nation, where a wildfire burned at least 10 buildings to the ground earlier this month.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.
Updated on Monday, May 21, 2018 at 3:01 PM CDT: Adds photo