Some Pimicikamak, Man. residents returning home after wildfire prompts evacuation order

Some residents of Pimicikamak Cree Nation are returning home after a raging wildfire prompted an evacuation order Wednesday night.

More than 7,000 residents were given hours notice to leave their homes after the community issued an evacuation order around 9 p.m. Wednesday.

On Thursday afternoon, the incident commander for Pimicikimak told Global News early morning rainfall worked in their favour, and most residents were being allowed to return to the community, except for those who are high risk, including elders and people living with asthama, as the community is still on high alert and the flames could flare up again.

Resident Marlene Hamilton-Castel stayed behind in the community as her husband was on the emergency response team.

“I could see the flames and I could see the smoke,” Hamilton-Castel told Global News.

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“It looked scary. Everybody was concerned.”

A wildfire rages near Cross Lake, Man. Submitted / Kurri Ross

Hamilton-Castel says Wednesday night was a harrowing experience.

“I panicked, I panicked and (I) felt extreme anxiety,” she said. “My mouth was dry and I couldn’t relax at all. And my little three-year-old granddaughter, she kept putting on her jacket and she kept saying ‘let’s go’. ”

A wildfire rages near Cross Lake, Man. Submitted / Kurri Ross

“I felt bad anxiety. I was shaking and I cried. And I had to take a shower at three in the morning to calm down, I couldn’t calm down. And I was tired but my anxiety was stronger than me feeling the tiredness. I was more anxious than I was tired.”

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Hamilton-Castel says after about a few hours of broken sleep, she woke up to a sound that was music to her ears.

“The rain woke me up and I could hear the drops on my bay window, and I was like, ‘thank you god!’,” she said.

“It was almost like the best gift you can get. Like the best answer you can get to a fire that huge.”

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The Canadian Red Cross was assisting with evacuation efforts for the community, and was working to setup residents in hotel accommodations in Thompson, The Pas, Brandon, and Winnipeg.

Cailin Hodder, the prevention and mitigation fire operations manager with the Manitoba Wildfire Service, says favourable conditions Thursday allowed crews to make significant progress in battling the blaze.

“Yesterday we had some unfavourable conditions, so we had some high winds that were pushing the fire closer to the community, some increase in temperatures as well, so that increased the fire activity and we saw that fire move a little bit towards that community,” Hodder told Global News, adding that the fire grew to about 3,500 hectares in size and was about two to three kilometres from the community.

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“Overnight we did see the winds calm and shift, we also did see some precipitation this morning and we’re hoping to see further precipitation this afternoon into the evening as well as some lower temperatures. We’re definitely moving ahead much faster than we were yesterday to get its containment.”

However, Hodder says the blaze is still burning out of control, and the Manitoba Wildfire Service has deployed significant resources to contain it.

Hodder adds that cooler weather and precipitation has brought the fire risk in northern Manitoba to low to moderate. But in central and southern Manitoba, the fire risk remains high to extreme.

“Particularly southeastern Manitoba, the fire risk is increasing steadily. So that’s our fire danger level and that is quite concerning,” Hodder said.

Hodder says with dry conditions and a heat warning in place for much of southern Manitoba, they’re urging residents to take extreme caution this weekend when camping, backcountry travelling, or riding an off-road vehicle.

“We’ve had 44 fires to date, normally our average for around this time of year is around 88. So we’re still under our average but one thing of significant note is all 44 fires have been human caused.”

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