Feds to send up to 120 Canadian Armed Forces to help Manitoba fight forest fires

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair tweeted Tuesday the federal government has approved Manitoba's request for help fighting more than 130 wildfires that have so far displaced more than 1,300 people from First Nations east of Lake Winnipeg.

Evacuations continue at east-side First Nations as Manitoba boreal forest burns

Fires such as this one near Red Lake, Ont., are burning across Manitoba and northwestern Ontario. (Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry)

Up to 120 members of the Canadian Armed Forces are on their way to help Manitoba fight wildfires that have so far displaced more than 1,300 people from First Nations east of Lake Winnipeg.

Public Safety Minister Bill Blair tweeted Tuesday the federal government has approved a provincial request for help fighting more than 130 wildfires.

Evacuations are complete or underway at four Indigenous communities most heavily affected by the forest fires consuming tracts of boreal forest in eastern Manitoba.

The community of Bloodvein First Nation, which sits on the east side of the Lake Winnipeg narrows, was in the process of being entirely evacuated Tuesday evening, the Canadian Red Cross said in a statement.

Those with health issues were also being taken out of Berens River First Nation, about 70 kilometres to the north, as a precaution.

On Monday, most of the residents of Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids — two more remote communities served only by air and winter road — were flown to Winnipeg, where they're staying in hotels.

More than 1,300 fire evacuees are now staying in hotels in Winnipeg and Brandon and hoping the fires subside before power is cut off to their homes, leaving the food in their freezers to spoil.

"It's emotional. We're lost," Bloodvein resident Kim Scott said Tuesday outside downtown Winnipeg's Quest Inn. "We're worried about our community. Is it burning? What's happening?"

The Red Cross expects as many as 1,600 evacuees to require lodging in southern Manitoba in the coming days.

Both Bloodvein and Berens River are connected to southern Manitoba via the East Side Road, which was built in stages during the 2010s. The all-weather road makes makes evacuations easier, but the ribbon of gravel is still vulnerable to closure due to fires.

"There's only one road that goes in and out,"  said Xandra-Lee Pruden, a Winnipeg resident who is helping in-laws displaced by the forest fire. If it's closed, "they're stuck to only being able to fly in or fly out."

The logistics involved in evacuations by air made getting people out of Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids more urgent.

"It was a good decision on the leadership's part to evacuate … just in case the planes are unable to land when it gets really bad," Little Grand Rapids Coun. Clinton Keeper said in Winnipeg.

Little Grand Rapids Coun. Clinton Keeper said it was wise to evacuate his community before smoke made it more difficult to land planes. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

About 100 people remain in his community, including some band constables.

"We have some people patrolling the community in the evenings because what happened last time," Keeper said, referring to a previous evacuation. 

"There were rumours of nearby communities coming into the community and going into homes.… So we didn't want anything like that to happen."

Blair Owen, another Little Grand Rapids councillor, said he's worried climate change and a shortage of firefighting resources will make evacuations a seasonal event.

"Is this what happens? Are we just going to let these fires burn?" he asked in an interview from Selkirk. "Every forest fire season, are we just going to send everyone to Winnipeg?"

This section of the provincial fire map for July 20 shows fires along the east side of Lake Winnipeg, from the Poplar River to the Bloodvein River. (Manitoba Conservation and Climate)

There are 129 wildfires were burning in Manitoba, according to Manitoba Conservation and Climate. 

The largest is a 2,060-square-kilometre blaze in the mixed forest of the northern Interlake, mostly west of Highway 6, in a sparsely populated stretch between Gypsumville and Grand Rapids.

The second-largest fire is an 1,150-square-kilometre conflagration in the peaty wetlands and coniferous forest east of Lake Winnipeg, north of the Berens River.

Smoke from the eastern fires has drifted south, engulfing Winnipeg and other heavily populated areas.

There are also 149 wildfires in Ontario's northwest region, including 48 newly reported fires on Tuesday, according to Ontario's Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry.

Almost 1,600 residents of Ontario's Poplar Hill, Deer Lake and Pikangikum First Nations have been flown out, while evacuations are planned to begin today at North Spirit Lake and Cat Lake First Nations, the office of Ontario's solicitor general said.

With files from Marina von Stackelberg and Patrick Foucault