Some residents already returning after raging wildfire forces 7,000 people to flee Pimicikamak Cree Nation
Favourable weather conditions allowing some to go home, but hundreds of vulnerable residents can't return yet
A major wildfire burning out of control in central Manitoba has forced the sudden evacuation of Pimicikamak Cree Nation, but some residents have already started to head back as rains and shifting winds improved conditions.
Around 9 p.m. Wednesday, residents in the community of about 7,000 people were given three hours to pack up and get out.
The road out was jammed bumper-to-bumper in the darkness of the night as people fled, directed to hotels in the northern towns of The Pas and Thompson as well as southward in Brandon and Winnipeg, 515 kilometres away.
Chief David Monias said the fire has been burning south of Cross Lake, where the community is located, since last week.
Crews from several First Nations in the area have been battling it, but strong winds on Wednesday pushed flames closer. It is now listed by the Manitoba Wildfire Service as being two to three kilometres south of Pimicikamak.
"It jumped over the river and now it's heading towards our community" and the bridge on the only road out, Monias said.
As he and the band council met Wednesday evening to declare a state of emergency, "the incident commander, the ones that are looking after the fire, came in and said 'OK, you guys have to evacuate,'" Monias said.
The last report on the Manitoba government's website showed the fire being just under 1,900 hectares in size on Wednesday. But conditions have improved since then, Monias said, as rain has been falling in the area since Thursday morning.
A shift in the wind direction is also helping to create more favourable conditions, which are expected to last at least over the next 48 hours, according to a news release from the Manitoba Wildfire Service.
Four busloads of residents began to make their way back to the community on Thursday, after a conservation officer said it was safe to do so, according to Monias. However, young children, elders and those with underlying health conditions that can be worsened by smoke are not yet able to return.
"We have a lot of respiratory-compromised individuals in the community. I think we identified about 500 to 600 people who were vulnerable," said Monias.
Those residents will be able to return once the fire is completely out and the smoke has cleared, he said.
Kevin Carlson, assistant to the grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said 78 evacuees have registered at the Gordon Lathlin Memorial Centre in Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
"People are tired. They arrived here in the middle of the night," he told CBC News.
While some are heading back to Pimicikamak, Carlson said the arena will continue to offer a place for evacuees to eat and rest before they make the drive home, which can take between four and five hours.
People and organizations from nearby communities have also been offering their support in the meantime. He said he's hopeful everyone will be able to go back soon.
"The rain is making an impact," he said.
WATCH | Wildfire in northern Manitoba forces evacuations
Hotel rooms in nearby small towns have been in short supply, Carlson said, leaving some to sleep in their vehicles at hotel and mall parking lots.
Several posts on Facebook urged people in The Pas and other nearby communities to open space in their homes if possible.
In an earlier interview, Monias said the Red Cross was helping evacuees but could only secure 200 hotel rooms, and he felt let down by the organization.
9 active wildfires in Manitoba
Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said the organization was called on just before midnight and also worked through the night to find accommodations in different communities.
"Our team continues today to collaborate with the community leadership to provide support in the forms of transportation, lodging, meals and other necessary supports," he said in an email to CBC News.
The fire danger throughout central and eastern Manitoba is high to extreme, and low to moderate across northern Manitoba, the release said.
There are nine active wildfires currently burning in Manitoba. The Pimicikamak fire is the only one listed as being out of control.
With files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Matt Humphrey