'We didn't bring anything': Manitoba forest fire evacuees arrive in Brandon
More than 1,200 were expected to arrive in western Manitoba city by end of day
People who arrived in Brandon on Wednesday by the planeload after being forced from their northern Manitoba homes due to smoke and flames say they became separated from family members in what they described as a chaotic, hectic evacuation.
Up to 7,000 people could now be driven out of their homes by wildfires in northern Manitoba, according to the Red Cross. The number had reached 3,700 by Wednesday afternoon. It's the largest evacuation the Red Cross in Manitoba has had to undertake, officials said Wednesday.
Norah Whiteway, who had to leave her home in Wasagamack, Man. — nearly 500 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg — helped the very young, the old and those with medical issues leave on Tuesday evening. After taking a boat to St. Theresa Point, she flew to Winnipeg, then to Brandon.
"It was scary on the boats," she said while outside the Red Cross reception centre in the western Manitoba city. "All the darkness and things flying, ashes flying, with elders and boats all over the place."
She said there were seven people on the boat with her. One man got sick, she said, adding that many arrived with little more than the clothes on their backs. Some who arrived at the reception centre in Brandon were fortunate enough to have had time to pack small bags.
"We didn't bring anything, only my purse when we left because I was focused on the kids. I wanted them out of there because of the smoke, their lungs. I was worried about their lungs," Whiteway said.
Some children became separated from their families in the chaos, she said, adding that she was still looking for one of her grandsons on Wednesday afternoon.
"When we got to the airport, people came piling in, there was a co-ordinator there … you can't call out, so much noise in there, kids crying," she said.
There's no one city in Manitoba that has enough hotel rooms for us, for the evacuees.- Red Cross spokesman
Whiteway expressed her frustration with the evacuation efforts on Wednesday. She wasn't happy with the Red Cross' response.
"We have no airport [in Wasagamack]," she said. "It was really poorly co-ordinated."
Whiteway said she asked earlier this week why the critically ill weren't being airlifted out then.
"We need somebody that can co-ordinate an evacuation from our community."
People were also taken out of the First Nations of St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill. With hotels in Winnipeg full, evacuees are now being brought to Brandon.
There are about 1,400 hotel rooms in Brandon. Once those are full, evacuees could be housed in Portage la Prairie, about 85 kilometres west of Winnipeg.
Flights into Brandon started arriving Tuesday night. By Wednesday afternoon, the runway at the city's airport was busy as people arrived about 45 at a time before being taken by bus to hotels.
The Red Cross is using all available hotels but plans are being made to create a large-scale shelter.
"There's no one city in Manitoba that has enough hotel rooms for us, for the evacuees," a spokesman said. "That's why we're using multiple sites."
The number of evacuees could reach 7,000, officials said.
On Wednesday, the Department of National Defence said it will send military planes to help residents get out of the evacuated First Nations.
The City of Winnipeg also said the federal Indigenous and Northern Affairs deparment will set up a triage and emergency shelter for evacuees at the the downtown RBC Convention Centre.
The fire in the Island Lake area is estimated at more than 23,000 hectares, provincial officials said.
Sheila Harper arrived in Brandon Wednesday afternoon from Garden Hill. She, like Whiteway and many others, had to take a boat to St. Theresa Point to catch planes.
"It was scary," she said. "When we were leaving our house you could see the burned … pinecones falling and ... falling ashes."
She said many people in her community didn't have time to pack.
"We didn't pack, no shower, no nothing," she said. "We Just left the house right away."
She asked people to pray for her community and those who remained behind.
- A previous version of this story stated the forest fire was 77,000 hectares in size, based on information provided to media from the Manitoba government. In fact, as of Thursday it was closer to 23,000 hectares in size, according to the province.Aug 31, 2017 1:39 PM CT