Grass fire destroys 2 houses, forces out 80 households in central Manitoba First Nation

Two homes were destroyed and about 80 households had to flee after a brush fire burned out of control into a north Interlake First Nation on Tuesday afternoon, the chief says.

Chief Heidi Cook of Misipawistik Cree Nation near Grand Rapids, Man. — about 400 km north of Winnipeg — says members of the First Nation’s emergency response team worked with RCMP to go door-to-door telling people to get out.

RCMP received the report of the fire at 1:40 p.m. and people were starting to be evacuated about a half hour later, said Robert Cyrenne from the RCMP in an email.

“It all happened really fast because it was a really windy day and it’s really dry. So the fire just took off,” Cook said.

“For a while the fire was out of control and they were just focused on trying to save houses. Now the fire’s under control but it’s still burning. So we’re still evacuating because things could change quickly if the wind or something else changes.”

Misipawistik Cree Nation Chief Heidi Cook says the fire burned quickly, posing a threat to people in her community. (Misipawistik Cree Nation Chief/Submitted)

People from an affected neighbourhood in the community called Beardy’s Point are staying in hotels in Grand Rapids and Thompson.

Cook says people weren’t able to go south to Winnipeg or The Pas because the highway is blocked due to another forest fire.

Bobby Ballantyne had to leave his home in Misipawistik Cree Nation. He was relaxing at home when he heard about the fire.

“All of a sudden my kids came to me and said, ‘There’s a fire outside, there’s a fire,’ and I got up and I went to go check it out, and by the time I went outside, the flames were already over the tree line,” he said.

“I was like, wow, okay, hopefully they can get that under control. But with the winds blowing, it’s very doubtful, I think.”

Before he left, Ballantyne started wetting down his house and put a sprinkler outside.

The father of six says rooms are filling up quickly and it’s hard to find enough space for everyone, especially when people are supposed to limit the number of contacts they have due to COVID-19.

Perfect storm

Cook says an added layer of stress was discovering the First Nation’s first case of a more contagious coronavirus variant on Monday after having no active cases.

“We were preparing to go into tighter COVID measures, and now everybody had to be COVID screened before they were evacuated and all that kind of stuff. It makes it a little bit more challenging,” she said.

She added that those who are sick are being kept in quarantine to stem the spread of the virus.

A brush fire in the north Interlake area was tackled by water bombers and local firefighters. (Submitted by Bobby Ballantyne)

There are at least six other wildfires burning in Manitoba, according to the province’s latest fire bulletin.

Manitoba Conservation and Climate says the wildfire danger levels remain extremely high across all of southern and central Manitoba. Air-quality warnings have been issued for parts of western and central Manitoba due to smoke.

A spokesperson from the province wouldn’t provide further details about the fire affecting Misipawistik Cree Nation on Tuesday evening.

To report a wildfire, call 911 or the tip line toll-free at 1-800-782-0076.