Manitoba

'I just want to get home': Different worries for 2 Island Lake fire evacuees in Brandon

The same wildfire brought Shelley Harper, nine grandkids and Gladys Harper to Brandon from the evacuated First Nation of Wasagamack, but now that they're here, different sets of circumstances have caused uncertainty about what's next.

Shelley Harper fled with 9 grandkids; Gladys Harper was visiting Wasagamack, has to get back to Winnipeg

Shelley Harper was forced from her home in Wasagamack, Man., and arrived in Brandon on Wednesday with her daughter and nine grandchildren. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

The same wildfire brought Shelley Harper, her nine grandkids and Gladys Harper to Brandon from the evacuated First Nation of Wasagamack.

Now that they're here, Shelley is faced with questions about what happens next for her and her large family, nearly 500 kilometres away from their home in the remote community.

For Gladys, the problem is less severe — she just needs to figure out how to get back to her home in Winnipeg.

Family of 11 in Brandon 

Shelley Harper is among the 3,700 people forced to flee this week from three First Nations in northern Manitoba's Island Lake area by fire and smoke. Her community, Wasagamack, is under a full evacuation order. The communities of St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill are under partial evacuation orders.

Since Wasagamack has no airport, people from that First Nation have had to take a 10-kilometre boat ride across choppy water to St. Theresa Point before being flown to refuge in the southern cities of Brandon and Winnipeg.

Sitting in her Brandon hotel room on Thursday, feeding one-year-old twins spoonfuls of yogurt while her other grandchildren slept, Shelley described the hectic trip she was forced to take, along with many others. Except she had a daughter and nine other children in her care. 

"I had to just be on my knees on the boat and trying to hold these babies," she said of travelling by boat to St. Theresa Point as ash fell from a sky darkened by smoke. The group spent the night on the floor of the St. Theresa Point airport and finally arrived in Brandon late Wednesday evening. 

Residents from Wasagamack First Nation were taken by boat to St. Theresa Point to escape nearby wildfires. (Facebook)

The family of 11 — Shelly, her adult daughter, and nine kids ranging in age from one to 12 — is believed to be one of the largest families among the 3,700 people forced from their Island Lake homes.

"I was scared," she said. "I tried to stick together will all my grandkids and everybody that I came with."

But now that they're in Brandon, there is uncertainty about what to do next. Her husband is in Winnipeg. She's worried about her home back in Wasagamack. 

Keeping nine kids fed, clothed and entertained was the immediate issue at hand on Thursday. 

"I don't even have any money ... I didn't come with anything," Shelley said, as the one-year-old twins screamed and cried.

"I don't have anything for [the kids] to wear," she said. "We didn't pack. We had to get out of there." 

Having arrived in Brandon late on Wednesday, she was put up in a hotel close to Brandon's airport and hadn't yet visited the Red Cross reception centre, where evacuees were registered and briefed.

Accidental evacuee 

Meanwhile, for Gladys Harper, who is staying at another Brandon hotel, the situation is a bit different. She became an accidental Wasagamack evacuee. She doesn't even live there.

Gladys Harper lives in Winnipeg. But she is now in Brandon after being evacuated from Wasagamack, where she went for a funeral. (Riley Laychuk/CBC)

"I was up there for a funeral," said Harper, who lives in Winnipeg, during an interview in the hotel's lobby on Thursday. 

She'd flown up to the northern Manitoba First Nation earlier this week for the funeral for a family member.

Little did she know she'd end up with hundreds of people waiting for a boat ride to catch a plane in St. Theresa Point. 

"It was kind of scary because the waves were rough and we kept meeting other boats and creating other waves," she said. 

After hearing a Canadian Forces aircraft was being brought in to the Island Lake area to fly people to Winnipeg, she figured she would be flying home. But when the charter plane she was on landed in Brandon and she was registered as an evacuee, that plan was put on hold.

She arrived in Brandon at about midnight Thursday and was among the last of about 900 evacuees to arrive. 

A crowd of Wasagamack evacuees awaited flights from St. Theresa Point to Winnipeg and Brandon Wednesday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"Now I have to find my way to Winnipeg ... I just want to get home," she said, chuckling while thinking about her unusual situation. 

As for how she's going to get home, she's working on it. 

"I'm not sure," she said. "I think I'll have to call my daughter to come pick me up." 

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