Residents relieved, anxious as they begin return to fire-threatened Cranberry Portage

Debbie Sinclair may not be ready yet to talk at length about what it will feel like to be able to walk through the front door of her home in Cranberry Portage, Man., but one thing she’s sure of: 

“They’re heroes,” Sinclair said of the fire crews, volunteers, emergency and Manitoba Hydro workers who for more than a week have been toiling to protect the wildfire-threatened community, which was deemed safe for residents to return to starting at 10 a.m. Sunday. 

“We just thank everyone and appreciate everything that they did,” Sinclair said in a phone interview with CBC, as she and her family made their way by road to their home after living out of in hotels in Thompson and Swan River. 

About 675 residents in and around Cranberry Portage were ordered to evacuate starting May 11 as a major forest fire threatened the area, located about 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. 

The evacuated areas included the cottage subdivisions of Sourdough Bay, Whitefish Lake, Twin Lakes and Schist Lake North. 

“I’m sure it will be a little bit emotional, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Sinclair said of being allowed to return home. “I’m hoping for the best.”

Sinclair said she felt confident in returning as emergency officials wouldn’t allow it if they were at risk.

“Today’s a good day … we can’t wait to sleep in our own beds,” she said. 

A wildfire is pictured from above.
A wildfire burns in northern Manitoba near near Flin Flon, as seen from a helicopter surveying the situation on Tuesday, May 14, 2024. (David Lipnowski/The Canadian Press)

‘This has been an experience’

Others, like David Tait, are less enthusiastic and are taking a wait-and-see approach to returning. 

Speaking to CBC by phone from a Winnipeg hotel, Tait said he’ll be staying in the city with his daughter, age 11, and their family pets until at least Tuesday. 

The community high school teacher said while the front line of the fire may be under control, it’s still burning and he believes the air quality can’t be very good. On the day of the evacuation, his daughter had to go to hospital in The Pas due to smoke inhalation, he said. 

“Going back is a little bit stressful … we’ll have to see how it goes,” he said. “I’m just a little bit skeptical of having to leave again.” 

While Tait expressed gratitude to all the emergency workers and firefighters, he said the evacuation was an ordeal and information sharing about logistics was slow. The Pas was overwhelmed with evacuees, prompting him to divert to Swan River, then Dauphin before finally deciding to make his way to Winnipeg.

Costs have been adding up, he said. 

“This has been an experience. I’ve learned a lot,” Tait said. 

Town officials expect residents to return gradually

Crews are still working around the area but the community isn’t threatened any longer, said Lori Forbes, the municipal emergency co-ordinator for the Rural Municipality of Kelsey. 

Forbes said the RM was hosting a breakfast to greet returning residents at the Wescana Inn 85 kilometres south of the community in The Pas, and a bus was scheduled to leave from there help those without vehicles get to their homes. 

Forbes said she didn’t expect a crush of people to go back all at once given residents sought refuge in many areas of Manitoba, and some in Saskatchewan and Alberta. 

Spirits were high, she said.

“A lot of people with uplifted spirits for sure, knowing they can go home today,” said Forbes. 

Manitoba highways officials said in a Sunday news release that there were no longer any fire-related restrictions along Highway 10 which links Cranberry Portage to the city of Flin Flon.

The province said in a Friday update it was using “significant resources” to fight the fire, which included six water bombers, seven helicopters and more than 200 provincial workers.

There were 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 update said. 

Provincial emergency social services would be available to help residents as they return, said the province.

The fire was listed as out-of-control on the province’s wildfire map as of Saturday, and covered an area of almost 37,000 hectares. 

WATCH | Massive out-of-control-wildfire that led to evacuation:

Massive blaze forces evacuation of Cranberry Portage

6 days ago

Duration 2:34

A wildfire that’s threatening the northwestern Manitoba community of Cranberry Portage hasn’t gotten bigger, but first responders could still be fighting it weeks from now, a provincial wildfire official said.