The chief of a remote fly-in Manitoba First Nation evacuated due to a wildfire says he is ready to send a small crew home to assess the damage and start cleaning up but is being told by the federal government to sit tight.
“They’re delaying,” Little Grand Rapids Chief Raymond Keeper said on Wednesday. “I’m getting tired of being treated like a kid, as if I don’t know how the bush is.”
A blaze nearly half the size of Winnipeg forced people out of Little Grand Rapids and nearby Pauingassi First Nation last week.
Keeper said Indigenous Services Canada tasked him with drafting a return plan for a small group before they would be allowed to return and survey the community, about 265 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
The proposal Keeper drafted identifies the required food, supplies, generators and emergency escape plans for 14 men who have volunteered to go back and start cleaning up, he said.
He hoped to send the group back on planes this morning, but he had to pull the plug because the equipment hasn’t been purchased yet, he said.
“Nobody wants to pay for that stuff. I can’t very well pay for it out of my own pocket,” Keeper said.
“They [Indigenous Services Canada] tell me, ‘Oh, you’re the boss. If you decide when the people start moving, then we’ll go with that.’ And then when I decided to move these 14 guys, I am slapped in the hand and told, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to wait.'”
Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Edith Pedneault said no one will be allowed back until Manitoba Hydro, the province and others inspect the damage and decide it’s safe.
“It is too early to speculate on timing. Our priority remains on evacuations and ensuring the safety of residents,” Pedneault said in a statement.
“Once the full scope of damages are known, we will be able to work with the First Nation to develop a work plan and timeline.”
Fire still out of control
The 25,000-hectare fire continues to burn four kilometres from Pauingassi and is still considered out of control, Manitoba Sustainable Development said in a news release.
Three homes, a garage and four dump trucks were seriously damaged in the fire, the province says, as were a series of power lines and transmission poles that have yet to be fixed.
Evacuees were flown to Winnipeg and remain in hotels.
Chief doubts fire still a threat
Keeper said two people never left Little Grand Rapids, so he feels it’s at least safe enough to send his crew back.
“They’ve never evacuated and they’re still alive today, so there can’t be that much of a problem,” Keeper said. “They haven’t been in any danger.”
The Red Cross co-ordinated initial evacuation efforts with help from Indigenous Services Canada, the Armed Forces, the Manitoba government and commercial airlines.
On Wednesday, Red Cross spokesperson Jason Small said realistically, officials are still a week away from even being able to assess when crews will be allowed to go back to the First Nations.
‘Blamed the chief’
Last week, Keeper criticized the federal government for not moving quickly enough to get people out.
He said he contacted the department on the evening of May 21, asking for help getting vulnerable people out. Indigenous Services Canada refused to do so until a day later, saying at the time that Manitoba Sustainable Development did not feel an evacuation was warranted Monday.
“They delayed the evacuation, and everyone turned around and blamed the chief and council, even though we were right there at the beginning of the fire, phoning around,” Keeper said.
Evacuation orders are still in place for the two eastern Manitoba First Nations and Sapotaweyak Cree Nation along the northern shore of Lake Winnipegosis. That community was evacuated early last week due encroaching wildfires.
Fires near the Interlake community of Ashern, about 170 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, are being monitored but are under control.
The number of wildfires has spiked for many parts of Manitoba this spring thanks to tinder-dry conditions and little rain.
The province said nine new fires started on Tuesday, bringing the spring total to 200. The average number of fires in the province by this time of year is 117.
Burn bans in parts of the province have been lifted, while some have been partially lifted. More details are available on the Manitoba government website.