Four First Nations in eastern Manitoba are being evacuated because of smoke from forest fires burning near their communities.
The Red Cross says more than 600 people have already been flown out of Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nation.
Over the next few days, the remaining populations of those two First Nations will also leave, amounting to another 500-700 evacuees. The communities are located near the Ontario border and are only accessible by plane.
Bloodvein and Berens River First Nations, located farther west along the shores of Lake Winnipeg, have also begun evacuations.
Five hundred people with high health priority have begun leaving those two communities, according to Jason Small, spokesperson with the Canadian Red Cross in Manitoba.
“Our team is co-ordinating flights. We have to accommodate for the size of the airstrip, so sometimes it’s small planes,” Small said.
Evacuees are being put up in hotels in Winnipeg and getting meals, transportation and mental health supports from the Red Cross.
“We may have to look at different communities but at the moment we can support everyone in Winnipeg,” he said.
There are more than 130 wildfires currently burning in Manitoba, most of which have been started by natural causes like lightning, Hallet said. About two-dozen fires are listed by the province as out of control.
‘It’s urgent’: Bloodvein First Nation councillor
Bloodvein First Nation Band Coun. Ellen Young said her community is particularly concerned about a new fire that started on Sunday night about six kilometres from the Bloodvein bridge.
It’s close to hydro lines and also affecting visibility on the road into the community, she said.
“It’s urgent,” Young said. “The smoke was coming into Bloodvein quite heavily.”
If the fire jumps to the west side of the road, she said, “our community could be really in jeopardy.”
For now, only about 200 community members with health issues that could be affected by the smoke are leaving, she said.
“We have three busloads of people that are going to be coming in. We also have some people with their own vehicles who will be driving in … we may have to get planes, we aren’t sure.”
Travel ban for area, no cottagers allowed
Effective 8 a.m. local time today, the Manitoba Wildfire Service has also issued a travel ban for the area.
The Wildfire Service’s Area 4 includes the large area between Lake Winnipeg and the Ontario border. It stretches north to Poplar River First Nation and south to the Wanipigow River.
There will be no access to cottages, and permanent residents must be ready to leave on an hour’s notice, the province says.
“Right now we have a couple of larger fires that are burning on the Ontario-Manitoba border,” said Don Hallett, assistant director of Manitoba Wildfire Service.
The two provinces are co-ordinating firefighting efforts, Hallett said.
“Unfortunately, at this given time, all of Western Canada seems to have a lot of fires occurring. So it’s harder and harder to share those resources.”
Hallett said there are no further evacuations planned right away, but surveillance of current fires was hampered Monday because north winds pushed smoke into Winnipeg, grounding some aircraft.
Extremely dry conditions hamper firefighting efforts
Hallett said unlike the last two summers where Manitoba saw lots of rain, this year’s weather is posing a challenge for fire crews.
“Unfortunately this year, being extremely dry right from the very beginning of spring, we’ve had a number of fires occurring closer to populated areas than what we’re accustomed to in the past,” he said.
“We’re always concerned when we have these long drought type periods because it makes fires that much harder to put out.”
Most of Manitoba remains under a burn ban in an attempt to prevent more fires. Travel bans are also in effect for some backcountry areas.