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Slow fire evacuations blamed on communication difficulties

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 24/5/2018 (857 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Officials expect to fully evacuate the 1,400 residents of two fly-in First Nations by Thursday evening, rescues that a local chief and the province say would have come earlier if it wasn't for communication foul-ups.

"I feel frustrated right now," said Little Grand Rapids Chief Ray Keeper.

His community, as well as nearby Pauingassi, has been engulfed in wildfires since Monday night. Residents were sent to Winnipeg through a chaotic evacuation that echoes the last-minute removal of Island Lake residents last August.

This map shows the size of the estimated fire perimeter as of May 24 near the two evacuated communities.

GRAEME BRUCE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS / MAPBOX / NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA

This map shows the size of the estimated fire perimeter as of May 24 near the two evacuated communities.

On Monday, Keeper was attending meetings in Winnipeg when his son called, saying he saw smoke on the far end of the lake. The chief phoned provincial officials, who told him the situation was under control. Staff at the federally run nursing station told him smoke inhalation wasn’t an immediate danger to most of the community.

Residents of Pauingassi First Nation (northern Manitoba) wait for evacuation.

MARIANNE CROW / FACEBOOK

Residents of Pauingassi First Nation (northern Manitoba) wait for evacuation.

"Initially the fire was one-tenth of a hectare and crews believed it could be contained," Manitoba’s Sustainable Development department wrote in a statement. "However high winds picked up, and the fire got into a section of brush with taller trees and the fire began to run along the treetops."

By Monday evening, fire had engulfed 5,000 hectares, and the department "tried to reach out to the chief and council" about an evacuation, but "were not able to reach anyone from the council, and left a number of messages at the band office."

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler suggested Thursday that band officials may have had their cell phones turned off, or have neglected to charge them, but wouldn’t name anyone. "We understand people are stressed," he said.

In any case, Keeper said nobody got a call.

"Finally I just took things in my own hands, and just started calling for help." He declared a state of emergency Tuesday, which the province said reserves normally don’t do until they’ve co-ordinated with the province and Ottawa.

Indigenous Services Canada (ISC) said Little Grand Rapids First Nation first contacted them on Tuesday afternoon, and that officials started planning how to remove the ill and elderly.

ISC Minister Jane Philpott said federal officials worked through the night and asked the military Wednesday morning to help the Red Cross in evacuating people.

As of midday Thursday, ISC said that Little Grand Rapids was 94 per cent evacuated, while Pauingassi was at 22 per cent.

The military was set on Thursday afternoon to provide one last trip with a Hercules plane to bring evacuees to Winnipeg from an airstrip in Ontario, to where people had been airlifted with two large Chinook helicopters.

Keeper’s telling of events echoes testimony last fall by leaders from Island Lake, in northeast Manitoba. Before being evacuated last August, Island Lake officials said they tried persuading the province and federal bureaucrats to send water-bombers. The fires forced one of the three communities to cross the lake by boat, and two women claim they had miscarriages as a result of the stress.

The House’s Indigenous-affairs committee heard last fall that Island Lake had a less organized response because, compared with British Columbia, Manitoba doesn’t have as much co-ordination with the federal government during evacuations.

"We're in the same situation this year; the Prairies are on fire," said Kildonan-St. Paul MP MaryAnn Mihychuk. "Lessons were learned, people listened, and I'm confident that things will be better this year."

Yet the area's NDP MP, Niki Ashton, said this is the worst co-ordination she’s seen in response to any natural disaster over the past decade.

She said it was "completely outrageous" for the province to be "essentially blaming the Chief and Council" when they had asked for water bombers to beat down the fires.

On Wednesday, the Southern Chiefs' Organization echoed similar concerns. Premier Brian Pallister said he’d consider those complaints when the situation was under control.

"I won’t comment on criticisms during an emergency. We’ll always evaluate post-emergency to make sure we do the best job possible," he told reporters.

In question period, NDP leader Wab Kinew urged Pallister to improve outreach to remote communities. "There was some sort of communications breakdown," Kinew said.

MARIANNE CROW / FACEBOOK

Pallister responded that all natural disasters provide an opportunity to learn, and the premier predicted the climate change will bring even more forest fires.

Philpott struck a similar note.

"We obviously will do an analysis at some point in terms of how well all of the communication took place, but the response that we have had so far I think has been exceedingly rapid, and we're very pleased that people are safe," she told reporters.

Schuler told the legislature Thursday afternoon that nine water bombers — four from Quebec — and 20 helicopters were fighting the northern fires, while another 40 firefighters were set to arrive from Ontario.

- With files from Nick Martin and Larry Kusch

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

History

Updated on Thursday, May 24, 2018 at 7:29 PM CDT: Corrects heading on chart

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