Forest fires move 'within yards' of Chemawawin Cree Nation, Easterville

Forest fires threatening Chemawawin Cree Nation in central Manitoba are crawling closer to homes and putting the "whole community" at risk.

Some 2,000 people from Chemawawin have been forced out, along with 70 from Easterville

A view of the wildfire near Chemawawin Cree Nation and Easterville, Man. (Courtesy Jeff Thomas)

Forest fires threatening Chemawawin Cree Nation in central Manitoba are crawling closer to homes and putting the "whole community" at risk.

"It came so fast. My place is still safe — no homes damaged yet — but the fire has come close, within or less than 100 yards," said Chief Clarence Easter. "It is pretty scary. We're in crisis mode."

Chemawawin fire Chief Fred Ledoux said the smoke was so thick Friday morning that the sun was barely visible.

"It's a bunch of little fires here and there, and it's still going — no big major flames but a lot of little fires here and there in the forest," Ledoux said.

Some of the fires are "within yards of the community," making for a stressful situation, he said.

"If the fire picks up, the whole community can be at risk … because the houses are very, very tight; they're close to each other. If one starts, it's hard to control the other ones starting."

Some 2,000 people from Chemawawin were forced out and bused to Winnipeg Thursday as forest fires got to within a half-kilometre of the First Nation, located about about 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg.​

The abutting tiny community of Easterville has also been evacuated, with all 70 residents going to The Pas.

Ledoux said four buses are on standby to get the remaining people out of Chemawawin, if it comes to that.
Chief Clarence Easter says his community is "in crisis mode." (CBC)

"I'm guessing there's roughly 200 people still in their homes. I don't know if they're refusing to be evacuated or they just don't want to leave, but local volunteers have been going door-to-door, encouraging them to leave," he said.

Easter, who is among those now in Winnipeg, said he is trying to stress to those who are still in Chemawawin that it is urgent for them to leave.

"It is unsafe. I don't want to take a chance of someone getting hurt or injured. I don't want to take that chance," he said.

Easter, who had to leave because the smoke is making his asthma flare up, said he is concerned for those with medical issues — people who are still in the community and the evacuees.

"I am worried about people who need dialysis, those who are asthmatic and those who are diabetic. Some just left and forgot their insulin."

The federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs Department says it is providing funding to the Manitoba government to fight forest fires on reserve lands, and the Canadian Red Cross is working with the First Nation to manage the evacuation.

The Red Cross evacuees have been placed in four Winnipeg hotels and given meal vouchers, but many left with little else but the clothes they had on

There are 10 RCMP officers, four Red Cross volunteers and 30 to 50 community volunteers in the area to help those who stayed behind.

The Manitoba government said on Friday the size of the fire is estimated at 350 hectares and crews have held it to the edge of the community with two water bombers, four bulldozers and seven ground crews.

There are no official reports of losses to buildings or infrastructure at this time, although Easter said on Thursday that at least one home was destroyed.

A total of 119 wildfires have been recorded to date in the province. The average for this date is 236, according to the government.

Nineteen new wildfires, all started by lightning, were reported on Thursday — nine in Leaf Rapids, four in Lynn Lake, two in Wabowden, three in Gillam and one in Oxford House.

The Manitoba government says the forest fires near Chemawawin and Easterville have consumed 350 hectares but crews are holding it to the edge of the communities. (Courtesy Aimee Gott)