Fire restrictions, public health rules rain on Manitoba campers looking to get away for May long weekend

The May Long weekend is not known for good weather in Manitoba, even if many consider it the unofficial start of summer. But lousy weather is just one of the factors turning the weekend into a bust for some.

Despite some recent rain, extremely dry conditions have forced a ban on campfires and back country camping, as well as closed most hiking trails in the southern part of the province.

New public health orders in place for the weekend to prevent further transmission of COVID-19 are also limiting who campers can interact with.

“We’ve decided we’re going to pack up,” said Lorraine Wright, who was camping at Birds Hill Park all week with her husband. The couple was supposed to stay the weekend.

“It’s cold. We can’t have fires until tonight.”

Lorraine Wright was supposed to be camping with her husband all week, including through the long weekend. But they packed up their site Friday because of the fire and public health restrictions. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief provincial public health officer, and Health Minister Heather Stefanson announced new public health orders Thursday afternoon, in an attempt to prevent a surge of COVID-19 cases from long weekend gatherings amid the third wave.

As of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, Manitobans cannot gather outdoors with people outside their own household unless they live alone. Also, only one person per household will be allowed to enter businesses, though there are exceptions for people such as caregivers.

Campsites will be considered private residences under the order, so only people from the same household will be allowed to camp together, said Roussin during Thursday’s news conference.

That clinched it for Wright. She and her husband had hoped to meet up with a few friends in public areas, but she didn’t want to stay out camping if they had to spend the weekend by themselves, she said.

“We can’t sit on the beach or around a picnic table or a campfire, so it’s just cold and somewhat lonely,” she said. “We looked forward to this for a long time”

A drought has caused extremely dry conditions through much of Manitoba and wildfires have been burning in various pockets for over a week. Some residents had to evacuate their communities this week due to fires and smoke.

Last week, the conditions banned campfires and backcountry camping south of the 53rd parallel, and closed most hiking trails in southern Manitoba as well.

Recent cool temperatures and rain dampened the fire risk in many parts of the province, so most of the fire and travel restrictions have been lifted where appropriate, says a wildfire bulletin issued by the provincial government Friday.

The safety restrictions are still in place for the northern Interlake region and west of Lake Winnipeg and Swan Pelican Provincial Forest. Campfires are only permitted in fire pits in those regions, the bulletin says.

Some provincial parks and trails also remain closed due to nearby fires, but most have reopened.

Shaun Harbottle, owner of Crescent Beach Cottages at West Hawk Lake in the Whiteshell, has seen a downturn is business this May long because of fires that were “really close to our doorstep,” he said.

But Harbottle will cope with the slow summertime start if it means a downpour of rain is in the forecast.

“That’s more the concern right now…it’s the long term look,” Harbottle said.

“It’s one of those things where you want business, but we need the rain otherwise we’re not going to have a business here to run.”

Yet, more generally, 54 per cent of Manitoba’s campground spaces are booked this weekend — which is slightly higher than May long weekend last year, a spokesperson for the Manitoba government told CBC News.

Harbottle attributes that to the public yearning to get away in a safe manner during the pandemic. In the winter months, Crescent Beach Cottages saw an increase in business, in part, because of that.

Kai Newman and his wife Natasha are among those who had to get out camping this weekend.

‘We didn’t have any plans on missing it no matter the weather,’ said Kai Newman, who is out camping this weekend with his wife Natasha. (Holly Caruk/CBC)

“We didn’t have any plans on missing it no matter the weather. We got our nice tent, we got our tarp and we’re going to enjoy it,” said Newman.

“Big bummer that there’s been no hiking. But the lake trail that goes around the Birds Hill campground is really nice and that’s all open”

Camping is an opportunity for peace and quiet for Christy Cousins, an emergency room nurse in Morden, Man.

“I’m sick of COVID. I wanted to get out and get away,” she said.