Manitoba

Wildfire evacuees hopeful they'll soon return home after generators shipped to Pukatawagan

More than 300 Pukatawagan residents who have been living in Brandon hotel rooms due to wildfires near their community will soon be return home, after Manitoba Hydro shipped two generators to temporarily restore power.

More than 2,000 people were forced from northwestern Manitoba First Nation by wildfire in mid-July

A woman in a black shirt stands outside on a sunny day, with a tall sign reading "Victoria Inn" behind her.
Pukatawagan wildfire evacuee Beverley Cote stands outside Brandon’s Victoria Inn. The evacuation has been 'very emotional at times,' especially for parents with large families, she said. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Pukatawagan wildfire evacuees are optimistic they'll soon be able to return home, after temporary generators were sent to provide power to their northwestern Manitoba community while hydro lines are repaired. 

Around 2,000 residents of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, were forced to leave their homes in mid-July as a wildfire threatened the community and damaged the power line that feeds the area.

Manitoba Hydro has now shipped two 1,500-kilowatt generators to temporarily restore power to the community as crews work to replace 77 fire-damaged poles on the power line feeding the community, the Crown utility said in a Wednesday news release.

That means essential services — everything from water and sewer to internet access — will be available again, Mathias Colomb Cree Nation Chief Lorna Bighetty says.

"We will rest at night and rise in the morning knowing that our families are safe," she said in Hydro's news release.

Two young children in swimsuits stand almost waist-deep in the water, with colourful floating dinosaurs behind them.
Jorge Colomb, 7, left, and Alphonse Caribou, 7, were among a group of Pukatawagan evacuees staying in Brandon who travelled to Minnedosa for a relaxing day on the beach on Wednesday. The evacuees are hopeful they'll be able to return home soon, after Manitoba Hydro sent temporary generators to the community. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

In an online update, the province said the fire near Pukatawagan remained just under 53,000 hectares as of Monday and has been updated to a "modified response," meaning there is not currently a threat to public safety.

Beverley Cote is among the more than 300 Pukatawagan residents evacuated to Brandon — about 675 kilometres south of her home. She and her five grandchildren have been living in a hotel in the southwestern Manitoba city for more than a month.

"It's been very emotional at times," especially for parents with large families, Cote said.

"When we get moved from hotel to hotel, it seems to have … traumatized the kids and displaced them more."

'Emotional moments' for evacuees

Cote says she was anxious when she first received word her family needed to leave the community. They were told to only pack a small bag with few clothes, but she had no idea how long they would be away from home.

One of her biggest worries now is what state her home will be in when she returns to Pukatawagan. However, she said the community's leadership has hired cleaners to tackle fridges full of groceries that have been without power for weeks.

Living in Brandon remains a challenging situation, she said — evacuees cannot make their own meals, and most importantly they are not at home or in their own beds. Cote said she gets homesick yearning for summer experiences like fishing on the lake.

"It's hard. I've had a few emotional moments where I cried. Not only for me, but for the people in general, because I've seen them struggling," she said. "Everyone is trying their best."

A bright pink plastic floating flamingo is seen on the beach foreground, as several people play in the sand and the water in the background.
Pukatawagan wildfire evacuees have a recreational day at Minnedosa Wednesday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)
A young man in a black shirt blows air into a blue and green floating plastic dinosaur, with the beach and water behind him.
Pukatawagan's Sheldon Dumas blows up a raptor floaty at the beach. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

Pukatawagan evacuee Roseanne McCallum, 78, was part of a group who travelled to Minnedosa, about 50 kilometres north of Brandon, for a relaxing day on the beach Wednesday.

The visit offered a respite from city life.

"We just came out for an outing so that some of these families that are here can watch their kids swim. It's sort of a family outing for everybody," McCallum said. "It's so beautiful out here, everywhere you look."

She was one of the first groups that left Pukatawagan, which she said was "smoked out" and dangerous because of the fire — especially for youth and elders in the community.

She was first transported to the northern Manitoba city of Thompson by air, where she had a long wait for more information about where she'd end up.

A woman in a patterned shirt and a white cap sits in a chair on the beach.
Roseanne McCallum is among those now waiting on word on when she and her family will be able to return home. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

She said she was grateful that her family landed in Brandon, where they were able to stay together.

McCallum is now waiting on word on when she and her family will be able to return home, but hopes it will be sooner rather than later.

Red Cross response 

Pukatawagan evacuees staying in hotels across Brandon are getting support from the Canadian Red Cross for lodgings, food and meals, said spokesperson Jason Small.

His aid agency is also helping with other necessary supplies like hygiene kits and diapers, he said, and working with community members to provide recreation, access to medical support, and emotional support when it's needed.

"Our team is working very closely with the community" to make sure the roughly 300 evacuees still in Brandon "have fun things to do, too, as they wait to go home," Small said.

A young man on the right of a group of four reaches out to catch a football.
Skylar Prince, left, Tyler Prince, Jordan Cowley and David Linklater play football at Minnedosa Beach on Wednesday. The Canadian Red Cross has been working to try to ensure roughly 300 evacuees still in Brandon have recreational opportunities while they wait to go home, said spokesperson Jason Small. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)
A young boy in an orange life-jacket stands on the beach.
Pukatawagan wildfire evacuee Jayvion Bear, 3, looks at the lake in Minnedosa. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

The Red Cross is prepared to provide support as long as it's needed, he said. In some cases, it can be long wait before it's determined it is safe for people to return to a community.

"The important thing for us is to make sure that the people who are forced to leave their homes have a safe place to stay and have access to the help they need," Small said.

Foreground, a boy in a Spider-Man shirt sits on a man's lap. Behind them are a young boy in a life-jacket and a woman cradling a baby in her arms.
From left to right: Tracy Bear, two-month-old Tredon Bear, two-year-old Kameron Bear, Hawkins Bighetty and three-year-old Jerale Bear have a picnic at Minnedosa Beach on Wednesday. (Chelsea Kemp/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chelsea Kemp

Brandon Reporter

Chelsea Kemp is a multimedia journalist with CBC Manitoba. She is based in CBC's bureau in Brandon, covering stories focused on rural Manitoba. Share your story ideas, tips and feedback with chelsea.kemp@cbc.ca.

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