Evacuation of communities threatened by fire 'came too late,' airline manager says

A manager of an airline helping rescue evacuees from a fire-threatened First Nation says residents are facing panic and confusion in the midst of an evacuation that should have started sooner.

Little Grand Rapids chief says evacuation process is now a 'rescue mission' as huge fire burns near community

Fires approach Little Grand Rapids, Man., on Tuesday, May 22. (Province of Manitoba)

UPDATE: Exhaustion, concern and relief on board first Hercules airlift for Manitoba fire evacuees

A manager of an airline helping to rescue evacuees from a fire-threatened First Nation says residents are facing panic and confusion in the midst of an evacuation that should have started sooner.

"Panic. Everyone's faces I've seen come off the plane has been just like they've been in a war zone. They look hungry, thirsty, disoriented, probably from inhaling all the smoke," said Terrence Owen, operations manager at Amik Aviation.

"It got really bad really fast."

Hundreds of people are being flown out of Little Grand Rapids, about 265 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, and nearby Pauingassi First Nation as a fire nearly half the size of Winnipeg threatens the fly-in communities.

Manitoba officials said the fire was caused by humans and started around midday on Monday before growing rapidly.

The Canadian Red Cross began co-ordinating services from Amik Aviation and other local airlines to evacuate the communities starting Tuesday night. The Canadian military stepped in to help on Wednesday.

Owen said the evacuation process should have started earlier.

"It came too late," Owen said. "I don't know what broke down — communication, leadership, I'm not too sure. But this shouldn't have happened the way it did."

Confusion lingers over evacuation

On Wednesday, officials from Little Grand Rapids criticized the province and the federal government for how the evacuation was handled.

Chief Raymond Keeper said it's no longer an evacuation, but a "rescue mission."

Council member Clinton Keeper said band officials called the federal government Monday evening, and heard from Manitoba Sustainable Development the fire was under control.

"This could have been prevented, all this chaos," Coun. Clinton Keeper said. "We could have evacuated earlier if people had listened to us."

Watch Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs Organization criticize evacuation delays:

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels says they've been asking government officials for the community to be evacuated for the last two days, but he was told the fire was under control. 0:41

The province, however, says the First Nation made the decision to evacuate on its own, and provincial officials weren't able to reach the community's leadership to discuss an evacuation plan despite multiple attempts.

"Senior staff from [Sustainable Development] tried to reach out to the chief and council to discuss an evacuation of vulnerable persons, and potentially children and elders," a provincial spokesperson wrote in an email.

"Staff were not able to reach anyone from the council, and left a number of messages at the band office."

The province says that Little Grand Rapids didn't notify them before declaring an evacuation was needed.

"Communities make their own decisions about evacuation with input and consultation from agencies such as Sustainable Development and the federal government," the spokesperson wrote. "Once a decision to evacuate has been made, First Nations communities co-ordinate with the Canadian Red Cross."

Federal government assisting

A spokesperson for the federal Public Safety Minister's office says the First Nation contacted Indigenous Services Canada early Tuesday evening to begin the evacuation of Priority 1 people —  those with pre-existing or higher-need medical issues.

Two hours later, chief and council of the community declared a state of emergency, activating the Red Cross to begin evacuation, the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Indigenous Services made a request for aid to the Canadian Armed Forces overnight on Tuesday, which was approved early Wednesday morning, he wrote. The military re-tasked a CH-147F Chinook helicopter to help evacuate people from Little Grand Rapids to Red Lake, Ont.

David Lavalee, a Royal Canadian Air Force spokesman, said the helicopter was able to fly about 90 people out of Little Grand Rapids on Wednesday.

Watch footage of the fire in Little Grand Rapids:

Little Grand Rapids, Man., fire evacuation now a 'rescue mission': chief 2:53

A CAF CC130 Hercules has also been assigned to assist and was en route to Red Lake Wednesday evening, he added.

Jason Small, a spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross, said the group was officially activated at 5:10 p.m. Tuesday to respond and began evacuating shortly after.

They were able to get roughly 60 people out before the evacuation had to be halted due to smoke and darkness.

As of 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, more than 385 had been evacuated from Little Grand Rapids, he wrote in an email.

Province had no aircraft to spare: minister

Manitoba Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said dry conditions and unpredictable winds have made fighting the fire in Little Grand Rapids difficult.

"What happened is the winds turned and they picked up. Sometimes the fires are so big that they actually create their own weather. They can actually create their own wind, so in this case it did start to get uncomfortable," he said.

The Red Cross requested additional equipment, but Schuler said the province had no aircraft that they could spare.

 "So right away they went through [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] to the federal government and asked if the military would come in and help out," he said.

No one has seen a fire like this before.- Terrence Owen, Amik Aviation

Owen said Amik Aviation used float planes to land on the water and then transported people by boat to the plane.

"It's pretty bad. I can see it on everyone's faces," he said. "No one has seen a fire like this before."

About 160 people had left the community by Wednesday afternoon, band officials said.

Crews from Manitoba and Ontario are fighting the wildfire along with water bombers from Quebec.

With files from Aidan Geary, Tessa Vanderhart, Holly Caruk and the Canadian Press