2 Wasagamack evacuees hospitalized with pneumonia linked to wildfire smoke, chief says

Two people forced from their homes in Manitoba's Island Lake region due to wildfires are suffering from pneumonia linked to smoke inhalation, according to Wasagamack First Nation's chief.

'There's a sense of anticipation, waiting to go home,' says Chief Alex McDougall

A forest fire forced about 3,700 people from the community of Wasagamack First Nation, about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (Judy Klassen/Facebook)

Two people forced from their homes in Manitoba's Island Lake region due to wildfires are suffering from pneumonia linked to smoke inhalation, according to a local official.

The two evacuees are being hospitalized in Brandon, Wasagamack First Nation Chief Alex McDougall told CBC Radio's Information Radio on Wednesday morning.

"One is wearing a ventilator and is only able to communicate with us by a pad, writing notes," he said.

Roughly 4,200 people from Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nations were forced from their homes last week by a wildfire burning nearby.

A fire continues to smoulder near the communities. Wednesday marked the eighth day living in evacuation centres and hotel rooms for many of the residents. 

Evacuees are staying at the RBC Convention Centre, the Winnipeg Soccer Federation complex as well as in hotels in Winnipeg and Brandon.

The fire near Wasagamack, located about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, was reported on Aug. 15, but two weeks later the dry weather caused it to balloon in size to more than 23,000 hectares. By Monday, it was more than 28,800 hectares.

Throughout the week, strong winds resulted in an increase in smoke blowing into the communities and the rainfall in the area was not enough to help fight the fire, a provincial spokesperson said in an email.

Community like a ghost town: band councillor

Wasagamack band councillor Martin Harper is one of about 30 people who stayed back in the community in order to help the efforts to fight the fire and make sure homes and buildings are safe.

On Tuesday, he flew in a plane with a conservation officer over the areas where the fires are burning close to the community, and said he thought the recent rainfall did help.

"I don't see any flames around. It looks like that rain really helped put it out," he said. "The only thing we see is smoke, that thick smoke, no flames." 

He said the community is like a ghost town except for the few people taking care of buildings and feeding animals, as well as the firefighters working to make sure the flames are kept at bay. 

"Those firefighters are working on it, on that fire that is really close by the community," he said. "They are surrounding that area and are putting the hot spots out and they are still there." 

Harper added that while they are making good progress against the fires, there's still a risk to the community from the heavy smoke and flames flaring up again if the weather turns. 

"I know it's not safe yet for people to come back. If the weather gets hotter and hotter, too, and dries up it could spark up again," he said.

Fire being 'held,' but smoke still an issue

The fire is being "held," meaning the fire line closest to the community no longer poses a direct threat, according to Manitoba's Sustainable Development website. But smoke continues to be an issue.

"There's a sense of anticipation, waiting to go home and wanting to go home this morning," McDougall said.

He said he will be speaking with the province, federal government and the Canadian Red Cross Wednesday afternoon about a timeline for heading home.

"We have some concerns that we would like to make sure are dealt with. We need to check our water quality and air quality," he said.

Until then, McDougall said with so many people seeking help, there have been issues with making sure community members get enough food.

"I think we are eating Brandon out of its food … just because of the amount of people that have come into the town," he said.

The Red Cross is working with local restaurants to find a solution, McDougall said.