'Exhausted' First Nation evacuees in Manitoba still waiting for flights out of forest fire zone

Hundreds of evacuees from a northern First Nation in Manitoba spent another night sleeping on an airport floor and in a school gymnasium waiting for flights south, as a fire nearly twice the size of Winnipeg rages nearby.

“We don’t know where we’re going … I’m exhausted,” Jean Harper of Wasagamack First Nation said.

Harper and about 80 others who took boats to St. Theresa Point First Nation on Tuesday night boarded a barge to Garden Hill First Nation Thursday morning to catch flights to southern Manitoba.

Frustrations are mounting in Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point First Nation, where crowds of residents from Wasagamack remain after thousands were forced to leave their homes Tuesday night.

Children at St. Theresa Point after forest fire evacuation

Children from Wasagamack First Nation peer at a plane through a chain link fence Wednesday outside the St. Theresa Point First Nation airport. Roughly 2,000 people from Wasagamack were forced to leave their community due to a forest fire. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

The chief of Wasagamack says smoke from the fire — which encompassed 77,000 hectares as of Wednesday — and uncomfortable living conditions are taking a toll on stranded members of his community. 

“They’re tired, kids are just laying strewn around the roadway here waiting for planes,” said Chief Alex McDougall. “It’s unbelievable how long it takes to mobilize in a situation like this. I thought they’d be here.”

A total of about 3,700 people, including 2,000 from Wassagamack, had to leave the fire-threatened zone in the Island Lake region of Manitoba.

Fire over St. Theresa Point/Wasagamack

A forest fire nearly twice the size of Winnipeg burns in the distance near Wasagamack and St. Theresa Point First Nations. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Partial evacuation orders have been issued for St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nation. All three First Nations are about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.

By Thursday morning, 950 people had been flown out, the majority to Brandon. About 2,900 people were still waiting for planes out of St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill.

“It’s very frustrating for me to hear that,” said Judy Klassen, Liberal MLA for the northern constituency of Kewatinook. 

Forest fire zone in northern Manitoba

The neighbouring communities of St. Theresa Point, Wasagamack and Garden Hill are about 470 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. (CBC News)

“All my people are doing out there is just standing there waiting and not getting any updates, and that is the biggest … downfall it seems — the lack of communication.”

Canadian Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said more than five planes were expected to fly groups to Winnipeg from St. Theresa Point Thursday morning. The Canadian Forces flew out two Hercules aircraft full of evacuees Thursday. One landed in Winnipeg at about 10 a.m. CT.

Some evacuees who arrived in the two cities were split into hotels, while preparations are being made for the group slated to arrive in Winnipeg Thursday to stay at the RBC Convention Centre.

Canadian Red Cross, Winnipeg Convention Centre

Hundreds of evacuees are expected to arrive at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg Thursday. (Meaghan Ketcheson/CBC)

Panicked children and frightened elders were among the large rush of people to board boats in the dark on Tuesday night that ferried hundreds to St. Theresa Point from Wasagamack.

Klassen said the move was so stressful that an expectant mother suffered a miscarriage.

“Due to the boat ride — due to the overwhelming stress of what happened — she lost her baby at the school and it’s quite tragic,” Klassen said.

Wasagamack evacuees wait for flights out of St. Theresa Point

Evacuees wait for flights at Garden Hill First Nation. Members of Canadian Forces (seen in background) arrived Thursday morning to airlift people to southern Manitoba aboard Hercules aircraft. (Sean Kavanagh/CBC)

McDougall said he, too, feels pain for what his community members are going through.

“We’re feeling the impact of the fire and the smoke, and my heart goes out to them,” the chief said. “I’m not very happy seeing anyone in this type of environment waiting for help.”

Small said the Red Cross has ample supplies and resources to help evacuaees once they arrive in Brandon and Winnipeg, and do not need any items donated at this time.

Wasagamack evacuees wait at St. Theresa Point First Nation airport

A crowd of Wasagamack evacuees awaited flights from St. Theresa Point to Winnipeg and Brandon Wednesday. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

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