Manitoba

'This is how we're going to remember our grad': Wildfire derails Chemawawin students' ceremony

There was very little pomp and circumstance for graduates Thursday in Chemawawin Cree Nation. Their graduation ceremony was cut short after an evacuation order was issued for the Manitoba community.

‘I’ve been waiting for this for 12 years,’ says 18-year-old Rikki Houle

18-year-old Rikki Houle's graduation from Chemawawin School was cut short on Thursday after an evacuation order was issued for the community in Easterville, Man. (CBC)

There was very little pomp and circumstance for high school graduates Thursday in Chemawawin Cree Nation.

18-year-old Rikki Houle said she'd been waiting 12 years to receive her high school diploma at Chemawawin School. She bought a dress in Winnipeg and had her hair and nails done for the special day.

Instead of a party, she and her 18 classmates — who have all studied together since kindergarten — were given their diplomas in a rushed ceremony and ushered into buses and vans to make their way to Winnipeg.

"I was scared, nervous, my head was all over the place. I couldn't think straight and they told us we had to evacuate," Houle said.
18-year-old Rikki Houle's graduation from Chemawawin School was cut short on Thursday after an evacuation order was issued for the community in Easterville, Man. 1:12

 An evacuation order was issued for Chemawawin Cree Nation and Easterville Thursday afternoon after flames were reported within half a kilometre of the community.

"We all jumped up and we went to a couple pictures before we were all sent home to get ready to leave," Houle said.

"I took off my dress, threw it in my bag right away, grabbed whatever clothes I could grab and then I helped my little brother get everything he needed."

Houle said it wasn't what she expected would happen when she graduated, but she'll certainly never forget it.

"This is something to remember and this is how we're going to remember our grad. Being evacuated the way they gave us our diplomas," she said.

A sudden increase in wind speeds and hot weather had pushed fires that had already been burning for days, dangerously close. Houle said she saw smoke in the distance as she left her home.

According to the Canadian Red Cross, the agency co-ordinating the evacuation of Chemawawin, about 1,500 people have left the community.
All 19 students who graduated on Thursday in Chemawawin had studied together since kindergarten. (CBC)

On Friday only 15 residents remained said a Red Cross spokesperson. The province said it has evacuated 70 additional people from nearby Easterville, Man.

Houle, along with hundreds more from Chemawawin, are staying in Winnipeg hotels until the fire is under control. The Red Cross is providing all registered evacuees with clothing, lodging, food and hygiene kits.

The Easterville/Chemawawin fire is estimated to be 350-hectares large and crews have held it to the edge of the community with two water bombers, four bulldozers and seven ground crews, the province said in a news release Friday.

No buildings or infrastructure have been damaged by wildfires in the area so far. The province said it is using sprinklers to protect homes at risk catching fire.
This forest fire was burning about half a kilometre away from Easterville and the Chemawawin Cree Nation in central Manitoba as of Thursday afternoon. (Beverley George/Facebook)