A wildfire covering nearly 20,000 hectares is creeping perilously close to a pair of Manitoba communities southeast of Winnipeg.

The villages of Sandilands and Woodridge, about 90 kilometres from the capital, were under evacuation orders Saturday, and up to 400 people have been moved from the area.

Mike Purtill of the Manitoba fire commissioner's office said crews have used heavy equipment to clear brush and prevent the blaze from jumping a highway and reaching Sandilands, where the fire has burned only a couple of kilometres away from the village.

"More than 100 firefighters from 18 different municipal fire departments have been working to fight the fire," a government release said.

Four water bombers are also engaged in the firefighting efforts.

Evacuations lifted elsewhere

The fire, plus several others, had been threatening communities in the neighbouring rural municipalities of La Broquerie and Stuartburn on Friday. Officials went door to door Friday night asking people in Marchand to leave as high winds pushed fire and smoke dangerously close to the community, but the winds changed direction about 2 a.m. CT Saturday and eased across southern Manitoba, and all 350 people have been allowed back home.   


The fire near Bissett, Man., has left behind a trail of charred trees and blackened ground. (Chris Glover/CBC)

"The community is out of danger, and that's why we were notified that they felt safe allowing residents back into the community of Marchand," Brent Bekiaris, the emergency co-ordinator for La Broquerie, said Saturday morning.

Sixty residents of the village of Stuartburn were also allowed back home on Saturday, while another 100 who live in the area from Lonesand and Caliento up to Zhoda remained under an evacuation order, the province said.

Police closed Highway 201 east of Highway 59, south of Stuartburn, as fire crews battled the flames.

The winds were gusting to 90 km/h on Friday, but have since calmed to 30 km/h. Humidity levels have risen now that a cold front has moved eastward.

Bekiaris said the change in wind direction is welcome news to La Broquerie's fire department, whose crews are exhausted after battling fire for several days.

Situation critical

Manitoba acting fire commissioner Dave Schafer said Saturday morning that while the wind has died down, the situation remains critical.

"[It's] still very dry, and a fire can start up at anytime," Schafer said. "All it's going to take is someone to be negligent or another change in weather with windy dry conditions like we had yesterday and we'll be having trouble."

Provincial officials said the cooler temperatures and lower winds were helping firefighters contain existing fires, but added all eastern areas of the province remained at risk for new fires.

"Cottagers, hikers, residents and other travellers should keep a close eye on local conditions and be prepared to leave quickly if smoke or fire conditions change," officials said in a news release issued about 4 p.m. CT.

Long Lake area sees major blaze

Elsewhere in Manitoba, another fire near the community of Bissett at Long Lake is still 18,000 hectares in size. About 55 Manitoba firefighters and support staff, as well as six bulldozers, two skidders and seven helicopters, are being used to fight that fire.

Eight firefighters arrived from Ontario on Friday and 21 firefighters from British Columbia were expected to arrive Saturday to help out.

The province said all other fires that have recently started up were being addressed or were under control. Smaller fires have been contained near Lac Du Bonnet, the Pequis First Nation and Nopiming Provincial park near Bissett.

Another fire has closed two roads and several trails in Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba.

stuartburn, manitobaStuartburn is southeast of Winnipeg.

With files from The Canadian Press