‘The sky was going red’: Pimicikamak Cree Nation members describe ‘scary’ experience of fleeing wildfire

Pimicikamak Cree Nation member Russell McKay is ready to return home after fleeing from a “pretty dangerous” wildfire raging near his community.

At certain points, the smoke was so dark the sun struggled to break through in the northern Manitoba community on Wednesday. McKay said people couldn’t even see three feet in front of them as they drove down the one road to and from the First Nation.

While he is grateful for the support they received in the northern Manitoba city of Thompson during the evacuation, McKay said now that it’s safe to do so he’s eager to return to Cross Lake.

“We’re going home now and it’s all good,” he said.

McKay is one of many Pimicikamak Cree Nation members heading home Thursday after being forced to evacuate the community due to a wildfire burning out of control hours earlier.

Around 9 p.m. Wednesday, residents in the community of about 7,000 people were given three hours to pack up and get out.

Pimicikamak member Tina Ross said it was a scary experience fleeing the community at midnight.

A woman wears a red sweatshirt and glasses while sitting.
Tina Ross took photos of the massive smoke plume created by the fire as she fled Cross Lake. (Katie Nicholson/CBC)

As she left, Ross said she took photos showing the massive plume of smoke towering over Cross Lake.

“The smoke was already spreading and the sky was going red — and those flakes are coming from far away,” she said.

Ross arrived safely in Thompson around 6 a.m. Thursday.

Rosanna Sinclair said she didn’t think about how much she put in her bag as she packed up to leave, because her focus was on her family’s children, and getting them to Thompson safely.

The sky was dark with smoke as they fled and her family wore masks to make breathing easier, Sinclair said.

“It was very scary, especially thinking about the kids at home. And we had to try and fit everyone in our vehicles to get everyone out of the community in our family,” Sinclair said.

A woman with glasses looks to the side.
Rosanna Sinclair had three hours to get herself and her family out of Cross Lake after a state of emergency was declared due to the wildfire. (Katie Nicholson/CBC)

“It’s very tiring to take all our families out, get them ready, and try and not forget anybody back home and make sure everybody is safe.”

Chief David Monias said about 7,000 residents were forced from the community. Now that the fire appears to be contained, most can now make it back home — but not everyone.

“Some of them want to come home, but they also know that there’s dangers for them to come home considering that there’s still smoke out there,” Monias said. 

“We have to make sure that our people’s health and wellness is … our first priority.”

So far, about four busloads carrying around 55 people each headed back to Cross Lake, the area about 770 kilometres north of Winnipeg where the community is located.

Monias said he hopes the rest of the community will be able to return when the fire is completely out and there are no more smoke issues.

A wall of flames, burning in a forest, is seen from a car on a highway.
An out-of-control wildfire is burning south of Pimicikamak Cree Nation in Manitoba. (Roxanna Kimberly/Facebook)

The last report on the Manitoba government’s website showed the fire being just under 1,900 hectares in size on Wednesday. But conditions have improved since then, Monias said, as rain has been falling in the area since Thursday morning.

A shift in the wind direction is also helping to create more favourable conditions, which are expected to last at least over the next 48 hours, according to a news release from the Manitoba Wildfire Service.

Monias said they should be able to get people back home who are healthy and have no health conditions.

A man with grey hair wearing glasses and a blue shirt is pictured against a white wall.
Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief David Monias says nation members can start returning home if they are in good health as there are still concerns about the amount of smoke in Cross Lake. (Zoom)

The community has around 500 to 600 vulnerable members who have compromised respiratory systems, COPD, asthma, pneumonia or other underlying health issues, Monias said. 

Jason Small, a spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross, said the organization heard from the community late Thursday morning that everybody except those with the most serious health concerns was allowed to return home. 

The Red Cross has people staying in Thompson, The Pas and hotel rooms are ready in Brandon and Winnipeg if they are needed, Small said.

“Our team went into action trying to pull together as many hotel rooms as they could and then working with the community on transportation, whatever we could,” Small said.

“A lot of this happened … starting fairly close to midnight, so our team worked through the night trying to get as much help as possible.”

The fire located south of the community is now more than 11 days old. Monias said they have been battling it since it started and were able to control the blaze until it flared up, spreading to the shoreline opposite the Cross Lake community.