First Nation fire evacuees eager to return home as power restored, cleanup underway

The lights are back on and some wildfire evacuees aren't waiting for the Red Cross or the government to give them permission to return home to Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations.

Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi residents still waiting to go back nearly 1 month after evacuations

Fridges and freezers are being airlifted into Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi to replace appliances destroyed after the sudden evacuation. (Submitted/Eric Cowan)

The lights are back on and some wildfire evacuees aren't waiting for the Red Cross or the government to give them permission to return home to Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations.

Hundreds of evacuees have been in Winnipeg hotels for weeks, including Rena Knott, her partner and their five children.

"Very anxious — can't wait to get home and not come back," said Knott, whose kids have been out of school for weeks. "They just want to get home. They don't like staying in Winnipeg this long because they're used to being out, outside."

Rena Knott and her children, Arezoenah, 5, left, Laynie, 2, beside her mom, and Shaneen, 9, are living in a Winnipeg hotel but are eager to get home to Pauingassi First Nation. (Warren Kay/CBC)

On the week of May 21, a fire about half the size of Winnipeg forced evacuations and knocked out power to the eastern Manitoba communities, which are 15 kilometres apart and about 270 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. 

Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi residents were flown to Winnipeg, where they remain in hotels.

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen confirmed crews repaired transmission lines and poles and power was restored Monday at 3 p.m.

The fire was about 25,000 hectares in size. (Government of Manitoba)

While the Red Cross has not officially announced a date when evacuees can return home, Theresa Eischen isn't willing to wait. She bought a plane ticket with a northern airline and is heading back on Friday, she said, one day after her brother who manages the local water treatment plant.

She said she wants to get back to her life in the country and her job at the local nursing station.

"Everybody is looking forward to getting home," she said. "I think everybody is just going to be just really thankful for all the help we received and I think everybody is looking forward to becoming a community again."

The lack of power in the communities meant fridges and freezers had to be replaced due to spoiled food that sat in them for weeks.

A Red Cross spokesperson said Tuesday that volunteers and people from the area are helping to clean out the old refrigerators and homes in preparation for the return.

The Red Cross said on the weekend that it has already spent $1 million replacing 800 fridges, freezers and appliances in Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi.

One of several hydro poles damaged in a wildfire hangs in the air in Little Grand Rapids last month. Manitoba Hydro restored power to the the community and Pauingassi on Monday. (Submitted by Bruce Owen/Manitoba Hydro)

Eischen was among a small group of locals and band members who went home to Little Grand Rapids a couple of weeks ago to assess the damage and figure out how big a cleanup they were facing.

Though the stench from rotting food was overpowering, she couldn't resist the opportunity to get gardening.

"When I went back for that day, very quickly planted some tomato plants, and we're just looking forward to getting back and cleaning up and cutting the grass," she said.
Theresa Eischen wears goggles and a mask while cleaning rotten food out of the fridge in her home in Little Grand Rapids a couple of weeks ago. (Submitted by Theresa Eischen)

Indigenous Services Canada officials met with leaders from the First Nations on Tuesday to discuss plans for residents to return home, Owen said.

"We share the goal of returning residents home as soon as safely possible," an Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson said in an email.

"As there are several remaining items required to ensure the safe return of community members including: restoration of water and sewer services; health services; and RCMP, we are unable to give an exact timeline when repatriation will occur."

The power has been restored in Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations but there's still no word on when evacuees will get to go home. 2:27

About the Author

Bryce Hoye

Reporter

Bryce Hoye is an award-winning journalist and science writer with a background in wildlife biology. Before joining CBC Manitoba, he worked for the Canadian Wildlife Service monitoring birds in Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and Alberta. Story idea? Email bryce.hoye@cbc.ca.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Nelly Gonzalez