Winnipeg emergency shelters take in wave of wildfire evacuees

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Nearly 1,000 evacuees from fire-threatened northern Manitoba First Nations are adjusting to life in an emergency shelter in Winnipeg’s convention centre after being forced from their homes with little notice earlier this week.

The president of the RBC Convention Centre said the centre is prepared to house the evacuees from Wasagamack, Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nations in the Island Lake area for up to four weeks if needed.

They’ve been flown out of their communities about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg as a wildfire moved closer.

“As far as the Convention Centre’s concerned, of course, we kind of specialize in crisis,” said Klaus Lahr, president of the centre.

But Lahr acknowledged the task isn’t business as usual for the centre.

“You have 1,000 people living here. Washrooms, other facilities are taxed virtually to their limits,” he said.

“No showers here. In the normal everyday life of the Convention Centre, you don’t really need any showers, right?”

Sheila North Wilson, the Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said centre staff and evacuees calling the shelter home are finding some gaps as they go.

“There’s still, of course, issues around not enough specific toiletries, for example, and not enough pillows,” she said.

“I think even the staff are finding out the inadequacies and the things that are being missed along the way. But I think for the most part it could be worse.”

Sheila North Wilson

Sheila North Wilson, Grand Chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakinak, said there are still gaps in services at the emergency shelter set up at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The convention centre has stepped up housekeeping and security personnel and set up a screen showing cartoons and movies for children, Lahr said,

The Canadian Red Cross has organized shuttles to the YMCA and Pan Am Pool for showers every hour.

Kitchen staff are making around 5,000 meals a day, Lahr said, adding it’s not a huge departure from the workload during the busy graduation season.

“We have play areas, we have gaming areas, we have some organizations coming for recreational things and the Bear Clan is working with us to bridge that cultural gap a little bit,” Lahr said. “It’s a bit of give and take.”

Red Cross volunteer Cailin Hodder said she and other volunteers are working to keep kids busy and give their parents a chance to breathe.

“They always come in and they’re happy. They just want to be entertained and they want to do something fun,” she said.

Red Cross Convention Centre evacuees

Canadian Red Cross volunteer Cailin Hodder said its important volunteers work with young evacuees to keep them entertained and give their parents a moment to breathe. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

3,600 evacuees flown out by Saturday morning

The tense week of hurried evacuations was expected to culminate Friday. But Jason Small with the Canadian Red Cross said more evacuations could take place Saturday, depending on need in the community.

The entire community of Wasagamack, roughly 2,000 people, were told to leave due to the proximity of the fire. Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point are farther from the blaze and are running partial evacuations, limited to people with health concerns.

By end of day Friday, a total of 3,600 people will have been forced from their homes this week, Small said.

The Manitoba government released a statement saying the fire spanned 23,000 hectares — a space roughly half the size of Winnipeg — and was within one kilometre of Wasagamack as of Friday.

Crews from Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, Minnesota and Newfoundland and Labrador continue to help Manitoba firefighters attempt to tame the spread, although hot and dry conditions paired with high winds have resulted in elevated wildfire dangers.

Jason Small with the Canadian Red Cross said once the final evacuees arrive via plane, they will stay at a second shelter at the Winnipeg North Soccer complex on Leila Avenue. City and Red Cross officials worked along with volunteers late into the night Thursday setting up cots and laying down wood flooring over the Astroturf on the field

‘We needed more space’

The shelter at the soccer complex opened Friday morning and be able to accommodate about 900, Small said.

“We needed more space,” said Small. “We’ve essentially filled up the convention centre shelter.”

Red Cross volunteers set up soccer complex for fire evacuees

Volunteers carry big pieces of plywood to lay down over the soccer field. (Daniel Igne-Jajalla/CBC)

Red Cross volunteer Bob Chochinov said the new location gives evacuees easy access to a variety of activities and supplies. Garden City Shopping Centre, a laundromat and several restaurants are within walking distance of the multi-million dollar complex, which is surrounded by basketball courts, soccer fields and green spaces.

“It’s designed for people and kids, so the bonuses are there’s lots of facilities close by,” Chochinov said, adding the facility has several showers and bathrooms in its change rooms, and evacuees will be provided food and supplies once they arrive.

‘Out of their homes’

He said this is the first time in his many years as a Red Cross volunteer that the number of emergency evacuees was so great that two shelters had to be opened in Winnipeg.

“These people are out of their homes. The kids are used to being able to run around and watch TV and play with their friends,” he said. “Hopefully, the situation will correct itself in short order and we’ll be able to get them home.”

Small said a series of planes, including two Hercules aircraft provided by the Canadian Forces, shuttled 1,500 people to Winnipeg and Brandon on Thursday alone, bringing the total number of people evacuated by Thursday night to 2,500.

Number of evacuees drops

He said the initial estimate of 3,700 evacuees was downgraded to 3,200 as of Friday morning.

He reiterated that the Red Cross doesn’t need any items donated, but is always happy to take financial contributions.

Winnipeg North Soccer complex

Evacuees were expected to fill the Winnipeg Soccer North indoor complex Friday morning. (Sabrina Carnevale/CBC)

“If we do need something in the near future, we will certainly ask for it,” he said.

“The problem with goods is it’s hard to store, it can be very expensive to move around, whereas if we have financial resources, then we can very quickly get what we need and get it to the people.”

Anyone interested in volunteering can sign up online or call the Red Cross at 204-982-7330.

Small said because of the Red Cross’s mandatory training program for volunteers, there’s no guarantee people who sign up now will be ready to help before the emergency response is over.

Premier to visit evacuees

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister praised the response effort of government officials, volunteers and members of the Red Cross at a media briefing Friday.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister talks First Nation fire evacuees

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister praised evacuation efforts Friday at the Manitoba Legislature. (CBC)

“I don’t think it is possible for us to thank you enough to the people involved here,” Pallister said.

He said he planned to visit evacuees at the RBC Convention Centre Friday.

“All Manitobans are thinking of the folks that are out of their communities, out of your homes,” he said.

“We are doing everything we can to address their needs … and protecting the properties in those communities and the surrounding areas as well.”

Criticism of government evacuation

As the focus in the interim is on keeping evacuees well looked after, on the ground in St. Theresa Point, some people remain critical of the provincial government’s initial response to the situation.

Anna Tomy flew to St. Theresa Point days before the fire to visit her mother, who has a home in the community. She said the fire had suddenly and unexpectedly spread all the way to Wasagamack within a day.

“It was business as usual in the afternoon on Tuesday,” said Tomy. “By the evening when the sun was going down, hundreds of people were rushing to get to safety with such little notice that they left everything behind.”

Manitoba wildfire evacuees

Residents from Wasagamack First Nation were taken by boat to St. Theresa Point to escape nearby wildfires. (Facebook)

Tomy was among those helping transport people via boat from Wasagamack to St. Theresa Point in the dark of night Tuesday. It was amazing nobody was hurt on the water that night, she said.

While she said volunteers on the ground, emergency officials and members of the local band councils have done a great job throughout the evacuation process, Tomy said the province’s response was too slow.

“It’s not a big surprise … I wasn’t expecting much from him [Pallister],” she said.

“When it was the government’s turn to help, that’s when things fell flat. Children waiting outside of an airport in the cold all night with masks on to prevent inhaling smoke, no supplies or food due to short notice. Would this happen anywhere else?”

Tomy said she was encouraged to see the clouds over St. Theresa Point dump a little rain on the fire Friday morning.

About 15 millimetres of rain is expected to fall in the Island Lake region by the end of the day Friday, said CBC Manitoba meteorologist John Sauder.

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Winnipeg emergency shelters take in wave of wildfire evacuees

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