'Like the air was burning': Volunteers return to Little Grand Rapids after fire evacuations

The sounds of a plane carrying volunteers ended Naomi Keeper's quiet week as one of the lone residents who stayed behind in Little Grand Rapids, Man.

Group of 14 arrived Thursday to survey damage from huge fire still burning nearby

A group of 14 evacuees from Little Grand Rapids, Man., volunteered to fly back to the community to survey damage from a huge fire still burning nearby. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The sounds of a plane carrying volunteers ended Naomi Keeper's quiet week as one of the lone residents who stayed behind in Little Grand Rapids, Man.

"I feel like I'm camping, but at home," Naomi Keeper said, laughing over video chat Thursday evening from her home, which has lost power and running water.

On Thursday, a team of 14 evacuees from the community flew back to the First Nation to survey the damage, clean up what they can and try to get water running.

The community and nearby Pauingassi First Nation, about 265 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, were evacuated last week due to a massive wildfire that continues to burn close by.

Keeper stayed behind, using a generator to charge her phone to post periodic updates on her status.

"I'm actually enjoying it," she said. "I'm, like, on holiday, but not really."

The fire broke out on May 21 and grew rapidly. Recent provincial numbers say the fire covers about 25,000 hectares of land and is four kilometres outside of Pauingassi.

A photo taken last week shows the sun setting in Little Grand Rapids, Man. (Naomi Keeper/Facebook)

"Oh my God, the sky was on fire," Keeper said. "It was like the air was burning."

'Very eager' to go home

"They're experienced people," said Chief Raymond Keeper before the group flew out on Thursday.

The chief said it was his idea to send the group up, and he shared it with the Canadian Red Cross and the federal government. On Wednesday, he spoke out about government delays he says prevented the team from flying up earlier.

"All the rest of the people in the city, they want to know when they can go home," he said. "We'll be able to give them that answer once these guys report back to me."

The group of volunteers are experienced people, Chief Raymond Keeper said, and they'll report back to him about what they find in the community. (Travis Golby/CBC)

As they stood outside their plane on Thursday, the group was talking and laughing, clearly looking forward to getting home, the chief said.

"Very eager. I got pets, goldfish I haven't fed for a while," said Dennis Keeper, one of the volunteers.

"Kind of reluctant because of all the mess I have to go back to in my house. I had over 800 pounds of meat there I am going to have to clean up."

The fire near the communities is one of 206 fires so far this year, the province said Thursday. The 20-year average for this time of year is 119 fires.

Recent rain has helped firefighting efforts, but the province said the blaze still isn't under control and the evacuation order remains in effect.

On a more promising note, when the sun rose on Friday morning, Naomi Keeper said no smoke was visible in the skies over Little Grand Rapids.

By Friday morning, blue skies had returned over Little Grand Rapids. (Naomi Keeper/Submitted)