Northwestern Manitoba residents forced to evacuate by wildfire can return home Sunday

Northwestern Manitoba residents who were forced to evacuate the area around Cranberry Portage due to a massive wildfire have been told they can return home as early as Sunday. 

Improvements in weather conditions and work by crews fighting the fire mean full re-entry to the evacuated areas can start at 10 a.m. Sunday, Manitoba’s Wildfire Service said in a Friday afternoon news release.

“Oh, they’re super happy,” said Lori Forbes, the emergency co-ordinator for the rural municipality of Kelsey, which includes Cranberry Portage.

“That’s all they’ve been waiting for. Once they go home, they know their community is safe, their houses are standing, so it’s a wonderful feeling.” 

In addition to the community of Cranberry Portage, which is about 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg, the evacuated areas included the cottage subdivisions of Sourdough Bay, Whitefish Lake, Twin Lakes and Schist Lake North. 

Approximately 675 residents were told to evacuate, the province says. A small number of properties have been damaged by the fire, but impacted residents are being notified ahead of the reopening, according to Friday’s update.

Barricades on closed roadways will remain until Sunday morning. Highway 10 — which links Cranberry Portage and the city of Flin Flon — and the Sherridon access road will fully reopen then.

The province began issuing evacuation orders last Saturday, after the fire — east of Flin Flon and north of Cranberry Portage — grew quickly due to high winds and extremely dry conditions. The blaze, which was first detected on May 9, is believed to have been started by  lightning strikes.

The fire still covers about 37,000 hectares of land, the province said in its Friday update, but the fireline closest to Cranberry Portage is now considered under control.

The RM of Kelsey’s Forbes said community members wouldn’t be allowed to go home if it wasn’t safe to do so.

“We are still very dry in the north from The Pas to Flin Flon. The conditions remain the same as far as [being] very dry,” she said.

“So people really need to be aware that this situation is still very serious in our community, and need to be really smart about fires and be aware of the burn ban, and if they don’t know, to check.” 

‘Hats off’ to firefighters: resident

Cranberry Portage resident Hank Chevillard said he’s glad people will get to go home too.

But he wished a small team of volunteers could’ve gone into the community earlier to check on people’s fridges and freezers, especially because some may not be able to afford new appliances and food.

“But other than that, we’ve got to give a hats off to all the fire people who actually are out on the front lines and doing a wonderful job to try and keep our community [safe].”

A forest burns with flames lighting up the sky
This was Keith Jaeger’s view of the flames over First Cranberry Lake last Saturday night. It’s believed the fire, which was first detected on May 9, was started by lightning strikes. (Submitted by Keith Jaeger)

The province says it continues to use “significant resources” to fight the fire, which include six water bombers, seven helicopters and more than 200 provincial workers. There are also 40 firefighters from Ontario and five firefighters from Parks Canada involved, with 41 more firefighters from New Brunswick and Quebec arriving Friday and over the weekend, the province’s update said.

Provincial emergency social services will be available to help residents as they return, and reception centres at the Wescana Inn in The Pas, about 85 kilometres south of Cranberry Portage, and the Victoria Inn in Flin Flon will remain open this weekend, the province said. 

The province has released a wildfire evacuation re-entry checklist and a guide to evacuation re-entry to help residents as they return home.

The province is also fighting a second fire in northwestern Manitoba, near Wanless, which is north of The Pas. That fire is currently covering around 2,785 hectares, and is  2½ kilometres from Wanless.

Fire crews are also working to protect the hydro line between The Pas and Cranberry Portage from that fire, which is about two kilometres away from Highway 10. Anyone travelling on that highway may experience poor visibility due to smoke, the province warns.

The province said campgrounds in the Bakers Narrows and Grass River provincial parks remain closed until at least May 27. That includes Bakers Narrows, Gyles, Iskwasum Landing and Reed Lake campgrounds.

Backcountry travel along the Grass River from Cranberry Portage to Reed Lake is prohibited, and the Karst Spring self-guiding trail is closed, the province says.