Thousands of people in southeastern Manitoba are trying to stay warm amid bitterly cold winter temperatures, three days after their natural gas service was shut off by a fire and explosion at a TransCanada pipeline in the area.

The pipeline blast sent balls of flame 200 to 300 metres high, shooting out of the ground, at about 1 a.m. CT Saturday near Otterburne, 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

As a result of the explosion, about 4,000 of Manitoba Hydro's natural gas customers in the area had their service cut off, affecting homes and businesses that rely on gas for heat.

But there is hope: People living in Ste. Agathe, Niverville, New Bothwell, Kleefeld, Otterburne and Marchand — communities north of the gas line break point — should have their natural gas services restored by Monday evening, according to TransCanada and Manitoba Hydro.

Those living south of the line break — St. Malo, St-Pierre-Jolys, Grunthal and Dufrost — will start getting their gas back after the first phase. Most of the affected customers should have gas restored by noon Tuesday.

Bitterly cold temperatures

The cold weather hasn't helped the affected customers: On Monday, Arctic air dropped temperatures to –32 C in the communities affected by the explosion, but the extreme wind chill made it feel more like –45 C.

Debbie Wiebe

Debbie Wiebe of Niverville, Man., has been boiling water, running space heaters and using a lot of blankets since her family's home lost natural gas service on Saturday. (CBC)

Debbie Wiebe of Niverville, Man., has been boiling pots of water for dishes, running space heaters and wrapping her family in blankets since their home lost gas service on Saturday.

"We were all pretty much just under blankets all day yesterday, just watching the tube," she said. "It's been cooler, definitely. The floors are very cold."

A number of schools in the area were closed on Monday because of the gas outage.

Three schools will remain closed on Tuesday: École Héritage in St. Pierre-Jolys, Institute Collegial St. Pierre, and École St Malo.

Providence University College & Seminary in Otterburne was closed on Monday but will reopen to students and staff on Tuesday, according to officials.

Businesses struggling

Arlene Enns, who owns Le Routier restaurant in St. Pierre-Jolys, said she's staying open, albeit with reduced hours.

"We're trying to serve people on a microwave, a toaster and a very small pizza oven, so it's a little bit challenging," she said.

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Enns said she even prepared some restaurant food on her electric range at home on Sunday.

Meanwhile, staff at the Bothwell Cheese plant in New Bothwell, Man., have been unable to produce cheese since they lost their gas service.

Company president Ivan Balenovic said if they're without gas much longer, they might have to look at shipping out the milk being stored in the plant.

"If we had days ahead of us, then we would have to bring in some much larger heating systems because I'd be afraid that our pipes would freeze," he said.

"We're not able to retain the heat in our building right now but … it's not cooling off as fast as it normally would," he added.

Warming centres available

Warming centres were established over the weekend in several affected communities. One of the centres is at the Niverville Heritage Centre.

"They can come here, they can warm up. They can bring their kids; there's lots of room to kind of stretch their legs," said Steven Neufeld, the heritage centre's CEO.

"We have a cafeteria upstairs if they want a bowl of soup or a sandwich, something like that. We can provide those services for them."

As well, residents have been checking on neighbours who may not have an alternate source of heat.

Niverville resident Amber Hayward said she has electric heat at her home, so she's offered her place up to friends who don't have heat.

"Offering showers as well; don't want stinky people," she said, laughing.

Still, going for three days without heat has been taking its toll on residents like Terri Dowan.

"I'm ready for it to be turned back on. We've put blankets up on all our windows to try and keep all the heat as much as we can inside," she said.

"It's given us good reason to spend some more time as a family, that's for sure."