Evacuees shocked, devastated as forest fires burn near Sapotaweyak Cree Nation

People who fled Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in western Manitoba due to a wildfire earlier this week describe a chaotic, stressful evacuation.

Several fires are burning near the western Manitoba First Nation

Sapotaweyak Cree Nation Chief Nelson Genaille says no homes have burned in the community so far. Nearly 700 people were forced from their homes due to nearby forest fires. (Anne Bourassa/Facebook)

People who fled Sapotaweyak Cree Nation in western Manitoba due to a wildfire earlier this week describe a chaotic, stressful evacuation of the community. 

Nearly 700 people were forced from their homes and are now staying in hotels in Brandon, Swan River and The Pas. The only people that remain in the First Nation, about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, are those helping fight the wildfire. 

"Honestly … I didn't want to go anywhere," said Ryan Quill, who has lived in Sapotaweyak for more than 35 years. He arrived in Brandon at about 10 p.m. Monday and is now staying in a city hotel. 
"It was like shock. I felt completely numb. It didn't fell real. It felt like something you'd see in a movie," he said. "You think it's just something you see on the news and then you're part of it. It was really surreal."
Margaret Leask has been staying in touch with those back home in Sapotaweyak Cree Nation to get updates on the forest fires near the community. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

Quill drove down in his own vehicle with three other people, but many people travelled to Brandon on school buses late at night, he said. Some of the evacuees didn't arrive in Brandon until around 4 a.m. Wednesday. 

"As I was leaving the community, the wind had really picked up," he said. "As the wind picked up, you could tell things were about to change."

The Manitoba government said fires near the community were being held. The largest of the fires was east of the community and totalled more than 2,700 hectares as of Tuesday. Another west of the community was sized at about 1,000 hectares. 

Sprinklers were being set in the community on Tuesday to protect homes.

Chief Nelson Genaille told CBC News on Wednesday afternoon that no homes had been lost, but the air remained very smoky. 

The Canadian Red Cross is helping house and feed the evacuees.

Margaret Leask arrived in Brandon at about 2 a.m. Tuesday.

"It seemed very chaotic and very stressing to leave the community," she said. "We have a lot of young parents and elderly people who are trying to maintain some sort of stability in the hotels."
Chief Nelson Genaille says three water bombers and a helicopter were brought in to fight the fire Sunday. (Anne Bourassa/CBC)
Leask said some families had become separated during the evacuation. She's been trying to stay in touch with some of those left in the community to get updates.

She said a lot of people didn't have time to pack and are relying on the Red Cross and donations for clothing and other items. 

"It's not the choice we made. It's very devastating," she said. 

She doesn't know when she might go home but hopes it's within a week. 

"It's a day to day thing," she said. "It's very stressful and we're trying to cope the best that we can."