Some families were split up and children were panicking when a forest fire forced members of a northern Manitoba First Nation to flee their homes in the dark Tuesday night.

"Some kids were not even dressed, not covered or anything," said Emma Harper, who boarded a boat headed for nearby St. Theresa Point First Nation along with her husband Victor and others.

"I looked back at my community and all I see is red — red and black."

On Tuesday afternoon and evening, about 2,000 residents made the 10-kilometre trip by boat to St. Theresa Point, where they boarded flights to southern Manitoba.

"It's quite scary," said Kewatinook Liberal MLA Judy Klassen. She was up into the early hours of Wednesday morning talking with people forced to leave Wasagamack First Nation.

Klassen said some families were separated during the abrupt exit.

"You get on a boat in the middle of the night, it's dark and you don't know where you're going to be ending up or where the boat is taking you," Klassen said, adding many ended up staying at a school in her home community of St. Theresa Point First Nation.

Roughly 30 leaders from the community and people trained in fighting forest fires remain in the community.

At its closest point, the fire is less than one kilometre from Wasagamack. At around noon Wednesday, the fire had grown to 23,000 hectares, 10 times the size of Brandon. The fire near the three communities of Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nation, was likely caused by lightning, according to the Manitoba government.

'We were very fortunate'

"You want to turn and run from this approaching fire," Wasagamack First Nation Chief Alex McDougall said Wednesday in a telephone interview from the community, about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

McDougall said the fire spread into the outskirts of the community on Tuesday, and while smoke remains a problem a shift in wind direction kept the fire at bay.

Wasagamack First Nation fores fire evacuation

MLA Judy Klassen says there were a lot of boats on the water in the middle of the night Tuesday during the evacuation of Wasagamack First Nation. (Judy Klassen/Facebook)

"We were very fortunate," he said, adding no residential buildings have been lost yet, though the roof of the local band office was damaged by heavy winds.

The evening boat evacuation was scary, he says, and unlike anything he's ever experienced.

"It's not something that one would stick around and watch," he said. "It was both scary and amazing to see."

Branden Handle and other employees of a local marina were called on to help ferry people to St. Theresa Point from Wasagamack.

"They had a lot of kids crying, panicking, not knowing what's going on. You have a lot of mothers worried and all the guys were helping out, moving everyone slowly along," said Handle, who estimates he personally helped transport 40 people.

Some families split as about 2,000 members of Wasagamack First Nation evacuated in darkness0:38

'Amber ashes were falling'

Ash fell from the sky and stained boats black as Handle and others worked through the night.

"It was so sudden. I didn't believe what was happening," said Victor Harper. "That ride was very scary because the amber ashes were falling all over the place."

About 1,100 people from Wasagamack remained at the school gym and airport in St. Theresa Point on Wednesday morning as they waited to be flown to Winnipeg and Brandon, the chief said.

"They've been waiting in terminals and gymnasiums all night — these are still some of our elderly and very young. I am sure they're very tired," McDougall said, adding officials with the Canadian Red Cross notified him two planes destined for St. Theresa Point on Tuesday were forced to turn around due to poor visibility.

Evacuees arrive in Winnipeg, Brandon

Partial evacuations have also taken place in St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nation.

Wasagamack First Nation fire evacuation

Anna Tomey took photos of the fire near Wasagamack First Nation on Tuesday night as it edged nearer to the community. (Anna Tomey)

About 850 residents from those communities are being flown to Winnipeg and Brandon, as are the 2,000 evacuees from Wasagamack. The Canadian Red Cross said 135 evacuees from the three communities had arrived in Winnipeg and Brandon as of Wednesday morning.

The Red Cross hopes to have assisted about 1,200 evacuees by the end of Wednesday and is looking for more planes.

In total, 3,700 people from the Island Lake area will be evacuated. 

Shawn Feely, Red Cross vice-president for Manitoba and Nunavut, said that's a lot of people to move.

"We want to do it as quickly and as safely as possible. That's why we are searching for more aircraft," Feely said. 

The Red Cross has sourced planes from about 50 companies across Canada.

​Pilots can only fly for a limited amount of time, and planes need to be checked after flying through smoke and ash, meaning evacuation efforts take longer, Feely said.

"The community obviously is very stressed. There's a lot of smoke in the community. They could see flames from a distance. They did say that a few structures were in danger, but at this point, as of a couple of hours ago, there was no structures that had been affected," Feely said.

Wasagamack fire evacuees in St. Theresa Point

Fire evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation wait at the airport in St. Theresa Point. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Evacuees will first shelter in hotels in Brandon where there are more rooms. Once those rooms are filled, the Red Cross will start housing people in hotels in Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. Some people with medical conditions will stay in hotels in Thompson.

About 850 residents from Poplar River First Nation are currently staying in hotels in Winnipeg from an evacuation. Many of the evacuees from Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill will head to hotels in Brandon.

The Red Cross is making contingency plans in the event that St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill need additional evacuations. That could bring the number of evacuees to about 7,000, Feely said.

In that event, the Red Cross would house people in large shelters, similar to how fire evacuees in Alberta last year and British Columbia this year were housed.

Higher-than-average fire activity

About 130 forest fires are currently burning in Manitoba. Gary Friesen, manager of the fire program at Manitoba Sustainable Development, said the province is seeing higher-than-average fire activity.

"The conditions are so dry that these things can happen any time," Friesen said.

The forecast is calling for some rain on the east side of Manitoba on Friday, but after that it's going to get dry again. Up until July 28, Manitoba was "well below-average" for the number of fires this time of year, and now it has exceeded the average and there is still a lot of fire season left, Friesen said. 

Manitoba had sent firefighters to B.C. to help fight wildfires there, but those crews have been brought back, Friesen said. 

The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre has brought in 21 firefighters from the Northwest Territories and 13 from Minnesota, and 21 firefighters and two water bombers are expected to arrive from Ontario on Friday, a provincial spokesperson said.

'It happens so fast'

MLA Klassen has personal experience with the devastation forest fires can visit upon remote northern Manitoba communities. Her first home, which she built herself, burned to the ground in St. Theresa Point almost 20 years ago.

"It happens so fast," she said. "I've been in a forest fire situation and just like that my home was gone."

She encourages anyone interested in donating supplies to contact the Canadian Red Cross.

Klassen said she will continue to share updates about the fire and evacuations through her Facebook page.

"Stay tuned … as soon as I know something, you guys will know something."

Chief McDougall said he is proud of how quickly his community members came together to co-ordinate the evacuation.

"This threat to our community brought a lot of the members to come and work together and try and help each other out," he said.

"We're still very much at high alert here and we're trying to do our best to protect our community."'

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story stated the forest fire was 77,000 hectares in size, based on information provided to media from the Manitoba government. In fact, as of Thursday it was closer to 23,000 hectares in size, according to the province.
    Aug 31, 2017 1:36 PM CT
With files from Information Radio and Cameron MacLean