First Nation evacuees spend another 'frustrating' night waiting on flights out of forest fire zone

The last group of evacuees who fled their northern Manitoba First Nation in boats beginning Tuesday afternoon should arrive safely in Winnipeg Thursday evening, officials with the Canadian Red Cross say.

Thousands began leaving Tuesday afternoon when Wasagamack residents took to boats to escape fires

The second of two Hercules aircraft arrives in Garden Hill First Nation Thursday morning to fly forest fire evacuees to southern Manitoba. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

Hundreds of evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation spent a second night sleeping on an airport floor and in a school gymnasium waiting for flights south, as a forest fire about half the size of Winnipeg raged on nearby.

"We don't know where we're going … I'm exhausted," Jean Harper of Wasagamack First Nation said.

Harper and about 80 others who took boats to St. Theresa Point First Nation on Tuesday night boarded a barge to Garden Hill First Nation Thursday morning to catch flights to southern Manitoba.

Children from Wasagamack First Nation peer at a plane through a chain link fence Wednesday outside the St. Theresa Point First Nation airport. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"Just want to get the kids out of the smoky area," said Frieda McKay, who uses a wheelchair and had five young grandchildren with her at the Garden Hill First Nation airport Thursday.  

"I don't want them inhaling too much smoke, especially the little one."

Frustrations mounted in Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nation Thursday, where crowds of residents from Wasagamack remained after thousands were forced to leave their homes Tuesday night.

The chief of Wasagamack said smoke from the fire — which encompassed 23,000 hectares as of Wednesday — and uncomfortable living conditions were taking a toll on stranded members of his community. 

Wind challenges firefighters

Strong wind and high temperatures will make battling the blaze challenging for firefighters in the coming days, said Gary Friesen, manager of fire program for Manitoba Sustainable Development.

Water bombers and ground crews continued to fight the fire line closest to Wasagamack, which remained less than one kilometre away Thursday afternoon.

A forest fire nearly twice the size of Winnipeg burns in the distance near Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point First Nations. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The Island Lake area should get between 10 and 15 millimetres of rain, mostly on Friday, which will help firefighting efforts somewhat. There is a risk of lightning, however, which could start more fires. 

A water bomber group from Ontario has been helping fight fires elsewhere in the province, and Manitoba firefighters will get help from another 21 firefighters from Ontario expected to arrive Friday, Friesen said.

Crews are holding back the fire, but dry conditions are making it challenging.

"As soon as the situation stabilizes where re-entry to these communities can happen, it will. But public safety, staff safety, fire safety — it's all important," said Friesen.

In Wasagamack, a few community members and RCMP officers remained behind to look after the houses and the pets people were forced to leave behind. A CBC reporter could see two water bombers scooping up water and repeatedly flying about a kilometre inland to the fire line and then returning to refill.

A helicopter with a bucket also dumped water on isolated spots, while sprinklers kept houses on the outskirts of the community wet to protect them from flying embers.

The neighbouring communities of St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Garden Hill are about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (CBC)

A total of about 3,700 people, including 2,000 from Wasagamack, had to leave the fire-threatened zone in the Island Lake region of Manitoba.

Partial evacuation orders have been issued for St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nation. All three First Nations are about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

By Thursday morning, 950 people had been flown out, the majority to Brandon. About 2,500 people still waiting for planes out of St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill were expected to be flown out by day's end.

'They're tired'

"They're tired, kids are just laying strewn around the roadway here waiting for planes," said Chief Alex McDougall. "It's unbelievable how long it takes to mobilize in a situation like this. I thought they'd be here."

Evacuees wait for flights at Garden Hill First Nation. Members of Canadian Forces (seen in background) arrived Thursday morning to airlift people to southern Manitoba aboard Hercules aircraft. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

McDougall said he asked ministers with the federal and Manitoba governments for immediate assistance Wednesday. He said the pace of the evacuation underscores why Wasagamack needs its own airport.

"To talk to both Minister [Jane] Philpott and Minister [Eileen] Clarke at the province, saying, 'Hey we need planes here. We need military to come in here and do a large evac and do it right away.' But it didn't come until the next day." 

'Lack of communication'

"It's very frustrating for me to hear that," said Judy Klassen, Liberal MLA for the northern constituency of Kewatinook. 

"All my people are doing out there is just standing there waiting and not getting any updates, and that is the biggest … downfall it seems — the lack of communication."

Canadian Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said more than five planes were expected to fly groups to Winnipeg from St. Theresa Point Thursday morning.

The Canadian Forces flew out two Hercules aircraft full of evacuees Thursday. One landed in Winnipeg at about 10 a.m. CT and evacuees were bused to the RBC Convention Centre, where they will stay for the coming days.

Panicked children and frightened elders were among the large rush of people to board boats in the dark on Tuesday night that ferried hundreds to St. Theresa Point from Wasagamack.

Hundreds of evacuees are expected to arrive at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg Thursday. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Klassen said the move was so stressful that an expectant mother suffered a miscarriage.

"Due to the boat ride — due to the overwhelming stress of what happened — she lost her baby at the school and it's quite tragic," Klassen said.

McDougall said he, too, feels pain for what his community members are going through.

"We're feeling the impact of the fire and the smoke, and my heart goes out to them," the chief said. "I'm not very happy seeing anyone in this type of environment waiting for help."

Small said the Red Cross has ample supplies and resources to help evacuaees once they arrive in Brandon and Winnipeg, and do not need any items donated at this time.

Premier praises rescue efforts

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said his thoughts and concerns are with the residents of evacuees.

He praised the efforts of volunteers, provincial firefighting crews, department emergency measures staff, and officials with the Red Cross and federal government.

'We are a community in Manitoba and members of our community are in distress," Pallister said in a statement. 

"We are responding as we always do to help our friends and neighbours in need."

A Canadian Armed Forces Hercules aircraft arrives in Winnipeg Thursday at about 11:30 a.m. CT. The group of forest fire evacuees will stay at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)


  • 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 12:58 PM CT


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.

With files from Sean Kavanagh, Jill Coubrough, Karen Pauls, Kristin Annable, Cameron MacLean