The forest fires that forced the evacuation of Sapotaweyak Cree Nation this week have left the community looking like a “war zone” for the skeleton crew left behind to protect the Manitoba First Nation.
Chief Nelson Genaille is among 21 people left in the community, located roughly 400 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg along the shores of the northern basin of Lake Winnipegosis.
He calls the blaze the largest the community has ever faced.
“This is very big,” he told CBC News by phone Thursday. “You have these big flare-ups of orange and then you have smoke that comes in.
“It’s like a big war zone here.”
Nearly 700 people have been forced from their homes in Sapotaweyak Cree Nation since the evacuation of the community started late Sunday night.
At first children, the elderly, and people who were sick were taken out of the community but Genaille says a full evacuation was ordered after fire spread to the main road into the community Wednesday.
People were taken out of the community by bus and private vehicles, and with help from the RCMP and other emergency officials, said Genaille.
Evacuees and are now staying in hotels in Brandon, Swan River and The Pas.
Margaret Leask arrived in Brandon at about 2 a.m. Tuesday.
“It seemed very chaotic and very stressing to leave the community,” she said. “We have a lot of young parents and elderly people who are trying to maintain some sort of stability in the hotels.”
She said a lot of people didn’t have time to pack and are relying on the Red Cross and donations for clothing and other items.
“It’s not the choice we made. It’s very devastating,” she said.
She doesn’t know when she might go home but hopes it’s within a week.
“It’s a day-to-day thing,” she said. “It’s very stressful and we’re trying to cope the best that we can.”
‘It’s just a constant fight’
Genaille says the power is out in the First Nation but those remaining in the community are using generators to keep sprinklers running to help protect homes.
They’re also taking turns patrolling the community to watch for for drifting embers, says Genaille.
“It’s the wind that basically does it, and the temperature of the air,” he said, adding he’s also using the generator to keep a cellphone charged so he can keep in contact with community members.
“They’re probably worried about their belongings, what they have, pets and everything.
“I’m telling them everything is safe, everything is controlled — it’s just a constant fight.”
Genaille said as of Thursday afternoon no homes had been lost.
The Manitoba government has said the largest of the fires near Sapotaweyak is east of the community and totalled more than 2,700 hectares as of Tuesday. Another fire west of the community was about 1,000 hectares.