Heavy smoke, mechanical issues delay evacuation efforts on Mathias Colomb Cree Nation

Heavy smoke and technical issues delayed final evacuations on Mathias Colomb Cree Nation as community members continue to flee an out-of-control wildfire on Sunday.

Ralph Caribou, the UCN Coordinator for Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, has been actively working on the evacuations. The chief, a councillor and 40 residents were still trying to escape the area on Sunday morning, Caribou said in an email to CBC.

“This morning heavy smoke continues,” he wrote. A helicopter and plane both aiding with the evacuation efforts experienced engine problems on Saturday due to the smoke, Caribou said, and were unable to take off.

Trains from the Keewatin Railway Company have been called in to evacuate those who remain. Caribou said boats were also readied just in case.

The wildfire near Mathias Colomb is now approximately 230 square kilometres in size and is less than a kilometre away from the community, the Manitoba Wildfire Service wrote in an email to CBC Sunday.

Additional support is being given to the local fire department to ensure any new starts or flying embers are taken care of and to ensure important infrastructure or individual homes are not damaged, the email said.

The Northwest Territories has sent four single engine water bombers and an observation aircraft. Twenty firefighters from Ontario will arrive today and tackle the fires in the northwest, the Manitoba Wildfire Service said.

An estimated 2,000 people have evacuated from Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said in an email to CBC. While the majority of residents were transported out by train, the remaining 30 to 40 individuals are being flown out today, according to the Red Cross.

KRC trucks line up on a road.
Crews from Keewatin Railway Company, part-owned by Mathias Colomb and two other First Nations, worked around the clock to get the majority of residents safely out of the community. (Submitted by Anthony Mayham, KRC)

The Canadian military sent two transport planes Saturday to assist in the evacuation. One of them removed 41 people and flew them about 200 kilometres south to The Pas, a spokesperson with Canadian Forces Base 17 Wing in Winnipeg said. 

Another military aircraft was sent earlier on Friday to airlift people to Winnipeg — about 700 kilometres to the southeast — but wasn’t able to land at that point due to poor visibility.

‘The sky was yellow’

Charmaine Greene, a resident of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, is a front desk receptionist for the community’s nursing station. She fled to Winnipeg on Friday.

She said the fire was so close to the nursing station on Friday that hoses and sprinklers were placed near the building.

Greene said she and another staff member had been in the office for three days directing calls for the evacuation process, before co-workers banged on the door to let them know the fire was closing in.

Woman outdoors, smiling.
Charmaine Greene, who works in the community’s nursing station, said the fire was so close that sprinklers and hoses were placed beside the building. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

“The sky was yellow and you could just see dark grey clouds rolling in. It was difficult to breathe outside.”

Greene is relieved to have fled and said she hopes all the children and those with respiratory issues have been evacuated.

She said residents of Mathias Colomb were used to smoke from nearby wildfires in the summer, but she has never seen an evacuation in the 11 years she has lived there.

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