'No toothbrush, no comb, no nothing': Manitoba reeve's home burned to ground as grass fires plague province

After years of helping his constituents fight wildfires, the reeve of a southern Manitoba municipality lost everything in one of several grass fires burning across the province.

Water bombers douse blaze in rural municipality of Piney; dozens fight fire in Armstrong, Man.

Nothing but charred wreckage is left where Jim Swidersky's house used to stand. (Radio-Canada)

After years of helping his constituents fight wildfires, the reeve of a southern Manitoba municipality lost everything in one of several grass fires burning across the province. 

"The fire came with a big orange glow, with a roar," said Jim Swidersky, reeve of Stuartburn, Man., about 95 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg.

The fire swept into his community on Sunday, Swidersky said. When they realized what was happening, he and his neighbours called for help, he said — and then grabbed their garden hoses.

Some of his neighbours lost portions of their outbuildings or well or septic hook-ups, he said. But his own home was completely destroyed, even as he tried to stop the fire on it from spreading.

"It kept on burning and picking up volume with the wind, while I was putting it out on the outbuilding — darn it, I was going to try and save my house," he said. "And just the roar of the fire was unbelievable."

Burned wreckage stands where Jim Swidersky's home used to be in Stuartburn, Man. (Radio-Canada)

The experience took a toll on his neighbours, as well, he said.

"Everybody's beat, tired. Everybody tried to save their homes," he said.

Fires burning across southern Manitoba, outside Winnipeg

The fire was one of several burning throughout the southern part of the province this week. Grass fires destroyed two homes in Manitoba's Interlake region Sunday night and forced highway closures as dry conditions and strong winds raised the risk of fires across the province's southern region.

Firefighters meanwhile battled wildfires on the outskirts of Winnipeg Monday, while water bombers attempted to douse flames in the southeast corner of the province. 

The Manitoba government has imposed travel restrictions and burn bans across parts of the region, from Lake Winnipeg and the Wanipigow River south to the U.S. border, and from east of Winnipeg to the Ontario border.

Despite a significant amount of snow in early March, southern Manitoba has not seen much in the way of snow or rain in the past couple of months. That combined with winds gusting to more than 70 kilometres an hour on Sunday to create conditions in which fires could quickly burn out of control.
A Manitoba government water bomber flies over the fire near Badger, Man. on Monday. (Manitoba Government)

Gary Friesen, manager of the wildfire program with Manitoba Sustainable Development, said there was very little moisture in the ground last fall.

"That combined with the lack of snow on the east side of the province, as well as the central areas, has resulted in a dry spring. We also have not received any real precipitation in the form of rainfall this spring, so that's compounded that," he said.

There's little rain in the forecast, and Friesen said 25 millimetres would be needed to make a big difference. 

Piney declares state of emergency

The RM of Piney, directly east of the RM of Stuartburn, declared a state of emergency Monday afternoon.

Kent Prociw, deputy reeve for Piney, said the water bombers have been unable to scoop up loads from nearby Whitemouth Lake because its surface remains frozen.

"That's been a problem for us," he said.

Instead, the planes have flown to Seven Sisters, about 100 kilometres north of the fire site, where the ice has already melted. A helicopter with a bucket attachment has been able to get into some smaller exposed basins in the area to pick up water for firefighting efforts, Prociw said.

A large fire burns near Badger in the rural municipality of Piney on Monday. (Manitoba Government)

'All our dreams are gone'

More than 160 kilometres away, another fire destroyed two homes on Sunday in the RM of Armstrong near Komarno, Man. in the Interlake region. The cause and damage estimates associated with the fire have not been released.

Shari Slater lost her home, a dog, a cat, and all her belongings when her home in the RM of Armstrong burned down. Without insurance, her family is left with only the clothes they were wearing. 
It's been a heartbreaking day for several homeowners in the Interlake. A grass fire ripped through the RM of Armstrong destroying hundreds of acres of land and some homes. 1:01

"Early this morning, I said it was a dream, just pinch me, because I can't get over it. The only clothes we have is on our backs. We weren't home when this happened and it's hard," she said.

"It's really hard walking through here today looking at everything. All our dreams are gone so we don't know what we're going to do."

Slater's 16-year-old son was home and called his parents when he saw the fire creeping toward the house. He managed to escape and neighbours tried to save the pets, but they weren't able to. 
Wildfires destroyed two homes in Manitoba's Interlake region and forced a highway to be closed as dry conditions and strong winds raised the risk of fires across the province's southern region. 2:15

Winona Shupenia also lives in the RM of Armstrong and fire came close to destroying her home as well. She said crews worked hard to save her house, and her daughter's neighbours came with two water tankers to help put out the fire.

"There was so much smoke, I don't know how they did it. They had two tankers on the back of a trailer and that's how they put the fire out here and in the bush," said Shupenia. "I didn't know what to think. I just stood there numb, and the kids just kept saying, 'Mother, go sit in the truck.' Well I couldn't sit. I had to watch what the guys were doing. Not that I was helping, but I had to watch."

Thirty to 40 firefighters from several fire departments helped put out the blaze, said Inwood-Armstrong fire Chief Kyle Hazelton.

The fire started at about 2 p.m. Sunday, said Hazelton, and high winds picked up fast and helped the fire grow. 

Fireworks spark blaze in Winnipeg

In Winnipeg, firefighters said someone set off fireworks in a field on the outskirts of the city in the neighbourhood of Charleswood.

By the time the crews arrived, the entire field was on fire, said Capt. Robert Campbell. So far, firefighters don't know who started the blaze, he said.

"I don't know what would give somebody the go-ahead or the lightbulb to flip the switch on and say, 'I'm going to start lighting fireworks in this field.' Bizarre."

No buildings were destroyed in that fire.

What Winnipeg's wildland fire unit uses to battle blazes off the grid

In Winnipeg, fires in backyard fire pits are banned whenever winds reach more than 25 kilometres an hour. Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service Assistant Chief Mark Reshaur said the service is asking residents for help to prevent fires.

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      Homeowners should clear all dead plant matter from within 10 metres of their building, trim trees, and don't have evergreens next to the house, Reshaur said. 

      "The dry conditions right now make the incidents that we have much more significant. And that's the concern that we have right now is that people do what they can to prevent these fires," he said.

      Lost everything

      Swidersky spent a sleepless night Sunday thinking of what he could have done differently, he said, after leaving with only his phone and the clothes on his back.

      "It's amazing — when you walk out of there, you have nothing," he said. "No toothbrush, no comb, no nothing."

      Jim Swidersky, reeve of Stuartburn, Man., stands in front of what's left of his home after a grass fire burned it to the ground on Sunday. (Radio-Canada)

      "The biggest thing, in the middle of the night, hit me: my past is gone. My pictures, my keepsakes from the past," he said.

      Swidersky said he wants Manitobans to be careful outside.

      "I hope people are vigilant. The fires are everywhere. People, stay away from matches, stay away from fires," he said. "There's no need to burn when it's dangerous out there. God forbid we lose lives."

      More information on regional burn bans and active wildfires is available on the Manitoba government website.

      With files from Bryce Hoye, Austin Grabish, Meaghan Ketcheson and Remi Authier