Manitoba

7 eastern Manitoba communities without power due to wildfires amid more evacuations

Seven communities in eastern Manitoba have lost power after a hydro line was affected by wildfires that have so far displaced more than 1,300 people from First Nations east of Lake Winnipeg.

Canadian Armed Forces sending 120 soldiers from CFB Shilo on Friday to fight fires

Berens River First Nation is one of seven Manitoba communities without power because wildfires have affected hydro lines. (Submitted by Percy Swain)

Seven communities in eastern Manitoba have lost power after a hydro line was damaged by wildfires that have already displaced more than 1,300 people from First Nations east of Lake Winnipeg.

The line that supplies power to Berens River, Bloodvein, Little Grand Rapids, Poplar River and Pauingassi First Nations, along with the communities of Loon Straits and Manigotagan, was lost after midnight on Wednesday, said Bruce Owen, a spokesperson from Manitoba Hydro.

Percy Swain works with the water treatment team in Berens River First Nation, about 275 kilometres north of Winnipeg,  and is staying behind to monitor homes as most of the community has been evacuated to Brandon and Winnipeg.

He says the smoke from two large fires to the south and the east is so thick he can't see the end of his driveway.

More than 1,300 people have been evacuated from four First Nations in the eastern part of the province because of a rapidly spreading wildfire. Seven communities in total have lost power because of the wildfire. (CBC)

There are 11 new fires burning, for a total of 138 across the province, according to the daily fire situation report.

Manitoba Hydro has made arrangements with the province to do a ground patrol of the section of the damaged power line close to the road, Owen said. There is currently no time estimate for when power will be restored. 

The fires have already forced more than 1,300 people to leave four of the affected communities: Berens River, Little Grand Rapids, Bloodvein and Pauingassi First Nations, the Red Cross said in an update on Wednesday.

Much of Manitoba is under a fire ban as the province works to contain 138 fires, some of which have displaced four eastern First Nations. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Sadly, it's something people from the area have come to expect, said local MLA for Keewatinook, Ian Bushie.

"In the middle of the night, and you can see the flames over the bush line and things … and the power goes out and you're in total darkness. So there's a lot of fear, there's a lot of uncertainty," he said. "But at the same time, a lot of the communities have been through this kind of thing before, so they know what to do."

More people were evacuated from their homes on Wednesday, including Nelly Berens, who escorted three children south, away from the fire.

Nelly Berens just moved to Berens River First Nation; within a few days, she had to turn around and evacuate the area due to wildfires. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Berens recently moved to Berens River First Nation and had begun work at the local school just before the wildfires started.

"Going in, it wasn't that bad. But coming out now, it's just like, what the hell is going on here? I wasn't expecting this," she said.

"You can see in the woods, there's fire over there, there's fire there … I never seen that. It's scary to see that."

Concerns about spoiled food

Some are wondering what, if anything, they'll return home to.

John Cook, from Bloodvein First Nation, about 80 kilometres south of Berens River, worries that his food will go bad while the power is out. Because he's staying at a hotel in Winnipeg, there's not much he can do but worry.

"The cost of the food we have to purchase in our communities [is] way too high for people, especially that are on social assistance, that have bigger families — they need more food," he said.

"I don't know what we're going to do when we get home, financially."

Bloodvein councillor Ellen Young is relieved that the nearby fire is just smouldering after a night that saw some rain.

"We're hoping the water bombers are going to get out there now that there's not quite as much smoke," she said.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Armed Forces confirmed Wednesday that specially trained troops from CFB Shilo in Manitoba will deploy to the affected area on Friday to assist in fighting the wildfire.

In total, 120 forces will be sent to fight the fires, the majority of which are based in Shilo, Capt. Terrilyn Maclean told CBC News.

The provincial government says 138 wildfires are burning in Manitoba, blowing smoke into all parts of the province. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Roy Moskotaywenene, of Bloodvein First Nation, who is staying at a Winnipeg hotel while he waits for the fires to dissipate, says he wonders why more help isn't already on the way.

"I think it's a little bit late. These plans should have been in place and already talked about and already happened yesterday," he said.

Moskataywnenene says the community was deemed a priority by Manitoba Conservation and Climate, but he didn't see any provincial firefighters there.

"What is priority? Can somebody explain to me what priority is?"

Rising safety concerns

Pauingassi First Nation Chief Roddy Owens says roughly 400 of his community members were taken out by float plane and helicopter with the help of the Red Cross.

But the rescue effort highlights a rising safety concern for the remote fly-in community, about 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

"Our community has no airport, and with increasing wildfires, our community members' safety is at risk. We have been lobbying for this critical infrastructure for a number of years now," he said in a news release Wednesday from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

"This crisis has once again exposed the fact that Pauingassi is one of two First Nation communities in Manitoba without an airport and is served by a seasonal winter road. We are one of the most-remote remote First Nations communities in Manitoba."  

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Find her on Twitter at @r_bergen or email her at rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.

With files from Katie Swyers, Marjorie Dowhos, Marina Von Stackleberg and Patrick Foucault

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