'I didn't really want to come out': Hundreds of First Nations forest fire evacuees arrive in Winnipeg

Long lines formed at the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg Thursday as hundreds of evacuees fleeing forest fires near northern Manitoba First Nations arrived in the city.

With help from the Canadian Forces, the last of the evacuees are expected to arrive by Thursday evening, the Red Cross says.

Pilots shuttled passengers to Winnipeg from an airport in Garden Hill First Nation, one of the Island Lakes communities under a partial evacuation order.

About 3,700 people from three remote First Nations were forced to leave their communities Tuesday on account of a forest fire that has since covered an area of dense woodland about half the size of Winnipeg.

The Canadian Red Cross has been co-ordinating evacuation efforts and helping residents get settled in Brandon and Winnipeg.

About 900 people were flown to Brandon and 50 to Winnipeg on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Red Cross estimates 2,500 people will be flown out of Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point by the end of the day Thursday.

After arriving in Winnipeg Thursday, the latest evacuees boarded buses and headed to the convention centre.

Once there, they waited to find out where they’ll be staying. Teams of volunteers assess the needs of the evacuees and determine who will stay at the convention centre and who will be sent to hotels, said Shawn Feely, the Manitoba and Nunavut vice-president for the Canadian Red Cross.

About 1,000 cots have been set up on the third floor of the large downtown building, which will house residents from Wasagamack, St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill First Nations until a fire roughly 23,000 hectares in size dies down.

Thursday evening, the Red Cross announced it will open a second emergency shelter at the Winnipeg Soccer Federation’s Winnipeg Soccer North indoor complex on Leila Avenue.

The shelter will be able to hold up to 900 evacuees and is set to open Friday morning. The soccer facility will be closed to the public until further notice, the Red Cross said.

Any group impacted by the temporary closure will be contacted by the Winnipeg Soccer Federation.

Supplies for evacuees

Families will receive hygiene kits with toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrushes and other essential items such as diapers and medical aids, according to Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small. The relief agency is working with the evacuees, their communities and health authorities, to ensure their medical needs are met.

The Red Cross also supplies money so people can purchase any additional incidentals they might want, such as extra snacks. That money is $ 4 per adult per day and $ 3.20 per child per day, doled out five days at a time.

“Kind of relieved,” was the assessment of Audrey Mason, who arrived in Winnipeg with her young grandchildren. “The past two days, it was bad. I didn’t really want to come out … I didn’t want to leave my other kids back home.”

Volunteers set up cots in Winnipeg Convention Centre for fire evacuees

Volunteers with Winnipeg watchgroup Bear Clan Patrol set up cots in the RBC Convention Centre. (CBC)

“It means a lot. The more people we have, the more we can get done and faster,” said Susan Chief, one of the leaders of the North End watch group Bear Clan Patrol.

“It’s sad, so if we could help out by doing this, that means the world. Too bad we couldn’t do more.”

“This is really unusual circumstances with the volume of people who are coming out,” said Kim MacLean, director of disaster management for Manitoba and Saskatchewan with the Canadian Red Cross.

“What we’ve seen in most experiences is that we start off with these nice straight lines of cots and by the end of the evening, they’re in family groupings.”

Evacuations continue

MacLean said many details are still being worked out, but volunteers wanted to first ensure evacuees had some essential items and services available when they arrived.

“Our priority is to get them a place to lay their heads and some food in their tummies,” she said.

“Hopefully Mother Nature will support us and get some rain up there and assist with that fire so we can get people back home.”

First Nation fire evacuees arrive at RBC Convention Centre

Forest fire evacuees from three Manitoba First Nations line up in halls of the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg where they will stay until the fire dies down. (Caroline Barghout/CBC)

Many of the evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation were stuck sleeping in airports and school gyms in Garden Hill First Nation and St. Theresa Point First Nation on Tuesday and Wednesday night.

On Thursday, Klaus Lahr, CEO of the RBC Convention Centre in Winnipeg, said that facility could house evacuees until the middle of September if needed. After that, he said, logistical issues would arise because of events that have been booked for the fall.

Forest fire evacuees land in Winnipeg

A Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft arrives in Winnipeg on Thursday carrying a group of forest fire evacuees who will stay at the RBC Convention Centre in downtown Winnipeg. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

How to help

As evacuees arrive in southern Manitoba, many people are looking for ways to help. The Red Cross says it is not looking for donations for the evacuees, since they are working on behalf of the federal government, although the agency is always accepting cash donations.

The Island Lake Tribal Council is asking for donations of blankets, pillows, water bottles and more for the evacuees. They’re also looking for items for infants, including baby formula and diapers.

Donations can be dropped off on the fourth floor of 338 Broadway until 10 p.m. Thursday.

The Me-Dian Credit Union has started an Island Lake Relief Fund. It’s accepting donations to help with short-term costs for the evacuees. Food, clothing, personal items and anything that might not be covered by federal funding can be dropped off at the branch at 303 Selkirk Ave. in Winnipeg.

People who want to donate or volunteer time to pick up donations can also post on the “Helping Manitoba forest fire evacuees in Winnipeg & Brandon” Facebook page. Organizers of that page are looking for everything from children’s toys to clothing, diapers, baby formula and toiletries.

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