Band councillor urges more action to restore Manitoba Hydro to fire-evacuated communities

1,500 people forced from Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations will likely have to wait six to eight weeks for power to be restored to their communities, Manitoba Hydro says.

1,500 people forced from Little Grand Rapids, Pauingassi First Nations could wait up to 8 more weeks to return

A fire-damaged hydro pole near Bloodvein First Nation. Hydro has been restored to that community and fire evacuees there have returned to their homes, but Pauingassi and Little Grand Rapids First Nations are still without power. (Submitted by Manitoba Hydro)

One of the leaders of a remote eastern Manitoba First Nation says it's unacceptable hundreds of wildfire evacuees may have to wait up to eight more weeks to return to their homes.

More than 1,500 people evacuated from Little Grand Rapids First Nation and nearby Pauingassi First Nation last month due to wildfires are waiting for power to be restored to their communities.

While people forced from other First Nations by fires this summer have been able to return home, it will likely take six to eight weeks to restore power to Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi, Manitoba Hydro said in a Thursday update.

Roughly 100 poles on the line serving the two communities were damaged by fires, according to the Crown energy utility.

Blair Owen, a band councillor in Little Grand Rapids First Nation, said he understands the repair work is difficult, but forcing his community to wait another six to eight weeks to return home isn't right. 

"Let's just say this was an urban area with road access, would they be telling people in Winnipeg or the surrounding area, you guy gotta wait six to eight weeks to get your Hydro back on? I don't think so," he said.

"It's be all hands on deck, full mobilization of all resources to get the power back on as quick as possible."

This picture submitted to CBC last month shows how smoke from nearby wildfires clouded the sky in Little Grand Rapids First Nation. (Submitted by Colin Meekis)

Wendy Leveque, another councillor from Little Grand Rapids, said people didn't realize they'd have to be away for so long when they were forced from their homes weeks ago. 

"Being evacuated, they thought they'd be only here for just a little while," said Leveque, who is now in Winnipeg. 

"They just want to go home."

The Canadian Red Cross said there are currently 1,536 fire evacuees from Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations in Winnipeg. 

A spokesperson said the Red Cross is helping with meals and lodging. The aid organization is also working with partners such as the Southeast Resource Development Council and Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata to provide support like recreation and activities for children.

Still, Leveque said the current situation is hard on families with little kids. 

"They want to be out and about, to go play outside." 

Conversations will likely start next week to discuss what to do if families can't be home in time for the return to school next month, Leveque said.

Some community members have told her they'd like to go home and rely on generators for electricity, rather than waiting until power is restored. 

Wait unacceptable, councillor says

A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro said while they understand people are eager to get home, temporary generators are not a feasible option for getting people home sooner. 

Hydro "is rapidly deploying material and crews to restore permanent power as quickly as possible," the spokesperson said.

Because of its remote location, everything needed to replace the poles needs to be flown in by helicopter, according to the Crown corporation. 

Work to to install hardware for the new poles began Friday, and a helicopter is set to begin flying in equipment next Tuesday, Manitoba Hydro says. 

Owen said the leadership at Little Grand Rapids First Nation is worried that if the power remains off until October, when temperatures start to drop, it could cause frozen pipes and other issues. 

Hundreds of people from Little Grand Rapids have been living out of hotels for more than a month, and it's having a devastating impact on their well-being, he said.

"Me personally, this is very frustrating and tiring," Owen said.

"When your community members are coming up to you [asking] 'What's happening? When are we going home? When can we go home?' and you don't have an answer for them, it's frustrating as a community leader." 

Owen said he hopes Manitoba Hydro can fix the line as soon as possible. 

"Yes, it's good that we got everyone to safety and all that, but this was supposed to have been an evacuation due to a forest fire, not Hydro being out.