Manitoba reeve recalls scary 2012 wildfire in Vita
'The best we can do sometimes is get out of the way,' Jim Swidersky says after grass fire
As Jim Swidersky's heart goes out to the people of Fort McMurray, in the wake of the massive wildfire that has devastated the Alberta community, his mind goes back to the moment he ordered the evacuation of Vita, Man., nearly four years ago.
Swidersky, the reeve of the Rural Municipality of Stuartburn, remembers driving to Vita, southeast of Winnipeg, in October 2012 and seeing how fast a grass fire near the town was progressing.
"I rolled into town and I said, 'Get everyone out,'" Swidersky said.
He said at first, officials seemed surprised about his call for an evacuation.
"They looked at me like I was from a different planet," he recalled.
But Swidersky said people immediately sprang into action and within half an hour, they got more than 400 people out of Vita.
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After declaring the evacuation order, Swidersky took a quick drive out of town. By the time he could turn his vehicle around, the grass fire — fuelled by dry conditions and strong winds — had destroyed a nearby bridge on Highway 201, forcing him to take another route back to the community.
Swidersky has seen a lot of fires over the years and said there was no room for doubt about what needed to be done.
He described the Vita wildfire, that would eventually destroy four homes and farmland in the area, as "fast and furious."
"It was scary. Unbelievable. It seemed like you were watching a movie. Even at the command centre, you're thinking, this isn't happening," Swidersky said.
And while the fire that swept through Vita was devastating for many, Swidersky said it could have been much worse.
"The fire came a couple … hundred feet away from the school," he said.
Following all the events unfolding in Alberta, Swidersky said he feels shock and a lot of sympathy.
He also described a sense of helplessness — something he got a taste of in Vita back in 2012, when poor cellphone coverage meant emergency crews couldn't communicate with each other while trying to get people out of the community.
Swidersky said emergency personnel had to yell at each other from street corner to street corner about what they were doing. He said it was like an old Western movie.
With Manitoba's recent hot, windy weather, Swidersky said it's important to remember the dangerous and unpredictable nature of wildfires.
"No matter how much you plan, Mother Nature still has its course to run," he said.
"The best we can do, sometimes, is get out of the way."