Forest fire evacuees from Poplar River First Nation head home

Hundreds of people who escaped wildfires in northern Manitoba near Poplar River First Nation began their journey home Tuesday.

Small local airport means it will take until Thursday for the estimated 750 evacuees to make the trip

Byron Mitchell works as a janitor at Poplar River School. He was part of the first wave of evacuees returning to Poplar River Tuesday so he can help the school get ready for students. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Hundreds of people who escaped wildfires in northern Manitoba near Poplar River First Nation begin their journey home Tuesday.

About 750 people were forced from their homes beginning Aug. 11 after lightning ignited a forest fire south of the Ojibway community. They were helped by the Canadian Red Cross.

On Saturday, Ernest Bruce — who serves on Poplar River's emergency measures committee — said that while the fire is not completely out it is slow moving and no longer poses a threat to buildings or people.
The yellow fire image beside Lake Winnipeg marks the fire near Poplar River First Nation. The other yellow fire image marks the fire threatening the Island Lake communities of Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nations. (Province of Manitoba)

The last fire status report by the province of Manitoba said the fire is "being held" at 4,624 hectares. It was detected Aug. 5.

Evacuees will be returned home in planes seating about 20 people due to the size of the airport in the community, said Shawn Feely of the Canadian Red Cross.

"Right now, we anticipate about 100 people returning today and then, over the next two or three days, about 200, 250 people per day returning home," Feely said.

Byron Mitchell, who was flown from the community a week ago, says he and others are anxious to get back — they have a lot of work to do after the planes land. 

"I think everybody is looking forward to get back home," he said, minutes before his plane took off from the Winnipeg airport.

Lucien Everette and Jayden Berens, both 19-year-old evacuees from Poplar River First Nation said they are happy to be heading home this week. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A janitor in the local school, Mitchell is part of the first wave of Poplar River residents heading home Tuesday morning so he can help get the building ready for students before class starts.

"We were working through the summer and we did repairs, and then we got the call that there was a full [evacuation] so we had to leave everything," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do when we get back."

Mitchell's family has been in Winnipeg for weeks, but he was one of about 60 who stayed behind to help set up sprinklers outside homes until a full evacuation was called in late August. The sprinklers were never needed.

However, the fire did get close, burning just two kilometres away at one point, said Lucien Everette, 19, who also stayed behind later than many others.

Before he left Poplar River a week ago, all he could smell when he left his home in the morning was wood smoke, he says.

"Even the dogs would be pretty irritated," Everette said. "They would be barking every morning."

Feely said as far as he knows, none of the buildings in the community were damaged.

Poplar River residents wait to depart Winnipeg for home on Sept. 5. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Everette is ready to leave the city for his much quieter home.

"I'm not used to so much civilization. I've been raised in the rez my whole life. It's all I'm used to," he said.

Poplar River is located on the eastern shores of Lake Winnipeg about 346 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. It can be accessed by an iceroad in the winter months, but its only accessible by plane during the summer.

It will take until Thursday for everyone get back because Poplar River's air strip can only accommodate smaller planes, evacuees told CBC.

Wildfires in other parts of Manitoba have forced about 4,300 residents in Wasagamack First Nation, St. Theresa Point First Nation and Garden Hill First Nation to fly to Winnipeg, where many are staying in shelters.

As Poplar River residents check out of their hotel rooms the spaces will be filled with people currently sleeping in shelters, the Red Cross says.
Forest fire evacuees from Poplar River First Nation begin to fly home to the community Sept. 5. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

with files from Meaghan Ketcheson and Cameron Maclean