Fast-moving grass fire forces 34 people from homes in southwest Manitoba

A grass fire fuelled by extremely dry conditions and strong winds forced a mass evacuation of 18 homes in southwest Manitoba in the early hours of Tuesday morning.

The knocks on the doors from RCMP came between midnight and 2:30 a.m., as the fire moved within two kilometres of homes south of Carberry.

“Last night was the first … [fire] that was just going straight toward them. So we had a small number of people that we wanted to get out,” said Bob Adriaansen, reeve of North Cypress-Langford, a municipality about 170 kilometres west of Winnipeg.

An RCMP spokesperson said a total of 34 people were awoken and told to leave.

Some emergency crews, including provincial water bombers, fought the fire throughout Monday while others helped move livestock out of the perimeter set up to control the flames.

The municipality issued a news release on Tuesday declaring a local state of emergency. It noted conditions are deteriorating and there is a risk of the fire breaching the northeast fire guard.

The fire has closed a section of Highway 5 between the Trans-Canada and Highway 2 — between the communities of Carberry and Glenboro.

The fire has closed a section of Highway 5 between the communities of Carberry and Glenboro. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

The fire started in a range that is part of CFB Shilo, a Canadian Armed Forces operations and training base.

Lori Truscott, public affairs officer for CFB Shilo, says it was ignited by a lightning strike sometime late Friday into Saturday as thunderstorms rolled through.

Ground crews worked to battle the flames until water bombers were added to the arsenal on Monday. They remained in the area overnight “so they could hit it first thing this morning,” Adriaansen said Tuesday.

The air was thick with smoke on Monday night while winds, gusting around 40 kilometres per hour, continually pushed the fire line.

The smoke had lifted somewhat by Tuesday morning but the fire was still going, Adriaansen said as the water bombers passed overhead. As of Tuesday afternoon, the fire was estimated to be about 3,600 hectares — or almost 8,900 acres — in size.

The fire has so far consumed an estimated 15,000 hectares, says the operations officer for CFB Shilo. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Maj. Talon Desjardins, operations officer for CFB Shilo, said there were times on Sunday when the military was going to call for help from water bombers, but then the weather changed. That slowed the spread of the fire, which appeared manageable until the winds kicked up late Sunday, he said.

“And we can’t bring in the bombers at nighttime,” he said.

The fire has so far consumed an estimated 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres), Desjardins said.

It’s the second major fire to burn in the area this spring. One just west of Carberry at the beginning of April led to about 20 homes being evacuated.

People were allowed back home a few hours later, once the flames had been extinguished. No structures were damaged but a large swath of field was left blackened.

 “It’s so dry this year. It’s dangerous,” said Adriaansen.

The fire could impact the Spruce Woods Provincial Park and Swan Lake First Nation, the province said. The Spirit Sands Trails in the Carberry desert are closed.

High risk of fire

Wildfire danger levels remain extremely high across all of southern and central Manitoba, and there are at least seven wildfires burning across the province, the Manitoba government said in a bulletin Tuesday afternoon.

In addition to the closure of Highway 5, a separate fire in southeastern Manitoba forced the closure of Highway 307, from Seven Sisters Falls to Eleanor Lake in Whiteshell Provincial Park.

Smoke and firefighting efforts also forced the closure of Highway 6 between St. Martin Junction and Easterville Junction in the Interlake. 

No backcountry travel is permitted south of the 53rd parallel, the province said.

A construction camp was evacuated and there is potential for evacuation of Homebrook, with potential smoke impacts on the communities of Skownan First Nation, Waterhen, Mallard and Gypsumville, due to a fire between 60,000 to 70,000 hectares in size. Crews had established a perimeter around the fire, but strong winds blew it past the perimeter and there are significant concerns about the fire expanding.

Strong winds blew two fires together into one fire, estimated to be 1,100 hectares, in the RM of Grahamdale near the Lake St. Martin First Nation and Dauphin River First Nation.

Crews are also battling fires in the areas of the RM of Piney, Netley Creek and Whitemouth.