First Nation fire evacuees could be 'cooped up' in Winnipeg hotels for a month

Hundreds of evacuees from two eastern Manitoba First Nations could be living out of their suitcases in Winnipeg for a month as officials continue to assess the damage in the fire-threatened communities.

Hydro poles down in Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations after fire forced evacuations last week

Collin Meekis says fellow community members from Little Grand Rapids First Nation feel 'cooped up' in hotels in Winnipeg. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Hundreds of evacuees from two eastern Manitoba First Nations could be living out of their suitcases in Winnipeg for a month as officials continue to assess the damage in the fire-threatened communities.

"Everyone wants to go home," Collin Meekis, community health representative with Little Grand Rapids First Nation, said Tuesday. "They're stuck in the hotel, cooped up."

Everyone in Little Grand Rapids and nearby Pauingassi had been airlifted to safety by Friday as a wildfire about half the size of Winnipeg encroached on the communities and knocked out power.

One of several hydro poles damaged in fires last week near Little Grand Rapids hangs in the air. Crews are waiting for provincial approval before going to make repairs. (Submitted by Bruce Owen/Manitoba Hydro)

Evacuees from both First Nations, which are less than 20 kilometres apart about 260 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, remain in Winnipeg hotels.

Meekis and a small group went back over the weekend to assess the damage. Two homes and a trailer were lost to the fires, he said.

"That was pretty much it, but then again that's too many," Meekis said. "It looks pretty good right now compared to that night; it looked liked hell."

Raw: Little Grand Rapids fire aftermath

4 years ago
Duration 1:12
Collin Meekis went to Little Grand Rapids on Saturday to check out the damage. He says someone must have been watching over the community because the fire burned right up to it, but most homes and buildings haven't burned.

Meekis said he has been informed it could be a month before the province lets people return to their homes, because it will take time to get plumbing back online and for Manitoba Hydro crews to replace damaged transmission lines and restore power to the fly-in communities.

"That's too long, I think. They need to put a rush order on it," Meekis said. 

"It's a waiting game. I hope that they resolve it soon."

Manitoba Hydro spokesperson Bruce Owen said crews will go back to repair the fire-damaged subtransmission line and several hydro poles in the area once the province says it's OK.

Though poles have been damaged, Manitoba Hydro believes the nearest power-generating substation wasn't damaged in the fire. (Submitted by Bruce Owen/Manitoba Hydro)

The province said Monday that light rains in the area have helped firefighting efforts but the blaze is still considered out of control.

Crews continue to battle the 25,000-hectare fire four kilometres from Pauingassi, the government added, and sprinkler systems have been set up to protect homes in each community.

Provincial fire crews are still being assisted by 120 firefighters from Ontario and four water bombers from Quebec, which arrived last week.

Aerial Manitoba Hydro crews continue to assess the damage on the ground, Owen said.

Hydro still doesn't know exactly how widespread the damage is, Owen said, but he believes the local power-generating station wasn't damaged.

Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said Monday the organization will help to co-ordinate the return to the communities once the Manitoba government confirms conditions are safe.

Power has been out in Little Grand Rapids and nearby Pauignassi since last week. (Submitted by Bruce Owen/Manitoba Hydro)

Evacuations started early last week and finished up Friday after a series of delays caused by thick smoke from the fires that created problems landing planes.

As of Monday, there have been 186 wildfires in Manitoba so far this spring — 114 is the average for this time of year — including fires that forced two other First Nations in the Interlake and northern Lake Winnipegosis region to evacuate.

A small number forced to leave Kinonjeoshtegon First Nation (also known as Jackhead), 225 kilometres north of Winnipeg, returned to their homes late last week. Fires threatening homes to the west in nearby Ashern are now under control.

Rains have helped stem the spread of a fire near Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, about 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, but an evacuation order remains in place for the community. Evacuees have been staying in hotels in western Manitoba for about a week. 

A wide ban on backcountry travel has been lifted in the east, central and western regions of the province, with one exception. Campfires are only allowed between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. In the Duck Mountains, motorized backcountry travel is also only permitted overnight. 

Meekis and his daughter are staying in a Winnipeg hotel with other Little Grand Rapids evacuees. He said while they're doing all right, larger families are finding the living conditions challenging.

"[For] a family with five, six kids, I bet it's pretty tough for them," he said.

"Most people say they want to go home now, but they can't, we can't. We've got to wait, because chief and council said we've got to wait."

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Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform Manitoba 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 won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson