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Some of the evacuees forced from their homes by northern Manitoba wildfires say they’re facing “culture shock” as they adjust to life in Winnipeg, and hope it will be a short stay.

But mostly, they hope their home community will still be there once the flames are snuffed.

“I can honestly say we are all just hoping to make it back home safe and sound to our community,” said Marshall Daniels, one of hundreds of residents from Mathias Colomb Cree Nation staying at a hotel in Winnipeg.

Some of the other 2,000 evacuees from the community are in Thompson, The Pas and Brandon.

Daniels went to high school in Winnipeg so is more familiar with the city than many others from the remote community, about 700 kilometres to the northwest.

“For some of them, it’s a bit of a culture shock to go from bush and trees and water to cement and concrete. But they’re adjusting — a little cranky at times, but adjusting,” he said.

“I’m just happy to have a decent roof over my head and that my family is safe.”

Marshall Daniels from Mathias Colomb Cree Nation has eight kids with him in Winnipeg, four of whom are under the age if 10. They each grabbed one bag of belongings before they fled from the fire threatening the community. (Darin Morash/CBC)

The wildfire that forced residents out of Mathias Colomb over the past week was last estimated by the Manitoba Wildfire Service to be 230 square kilometres in size and less than 500 metres east of Pukatawagan, a community that’s part of Mathias Colomb.

The out-of-control fire was first detected a week ago, and evacuations started the following day. The cause is listed as natural.

Band Coun. Alma Hart, who is also staying in Winnipeg, has been running out the door as soon as she wakes every morning, trying to ensure people have what they need, and meeting virtually or by phone with councillors in other places housing evacuees.

“That’s how everything’s been for the last four days for me and for other councillors and everybody that’s working on this,” she said. 

Most residents dashed out with a single bag of belongings or just the clothes they were wearing. It’s important to make them comfortable, Hart said, because while some are holding out hope it will be a brief stay, she is less optimistic.

‘It doesn’t look like we’ll be going home anytime soon,’ says Mathias Colomb/Pukatawagan band Coun. Alma Hart. (Darin Morash/CBC)

There are more fires now developing in the region, which has experienced the summer heat that’s blanketed the rest of the province, but hasn’t seen the rain southern Manitoba has, leaving the northern area tinder dry.

“So it doesn’t look like we’ll be going home anytime soon, until that’s been controlled by the province and our firefighters,” Hart said.

“We’re all worried about our community burning, our homes destroyed, our buildings. We have a train station out there, we have an airport, we have a store just going up.”

59 fires in Manitoba

Cailin Hodder, fire operations manager with the Manitoba Wildfire Service, said on Tuesday 59 fires were currently burning in the province, including six that started in the previous 24 hours.

Most are in the province’s northwest quadrant, which includes Mathias Colomb.

“These fires are growing quite rapidly. In fact, we’ve seen one fire … move as far as 15 kilometres in one day. And that’s pretty extensive,” Hodder said. 

As crews work to beat back the primary fire that’s closing in on the community, they are closely monitoring another just northeast of it, she said.

“We really just want to focus on the areas that we can manage, the areas that are at highest risk at this time. We don’t want to see an impact to hydro lines or the rail system, which is a very critical piece of infrastructure for Mathias Colomb Cree Nation,” Hodder said.

“We’ve been fortunate so far. We have not seen any structures lost or any critical infrastructure at this point. However, these fires are quite dangerous.”

A large group of people lines up beside a train under a sky that is orange and hazy.
Residents of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation are pictured as a train from Keewatin Railway Company arrived to help move them out of the community late last week. (Anthony Mayham/Keewatin Railway Company)

Water bombers are working with the support of crews and equipment from the Northwest Territories and about 20 firefighters from Ontario, who are attacking the flames from the ground level.

But the smoke has been so thick at times it has caused problems getting the bombers in, and has “really been affecting ground crews as well,” Hodder said.

Sprinklers have also been going almost nonstop in Pukatawagan to soak homes and other structures to make them less susceptible to heat and embers.

Cooler temperatures, rain in forecast

Cooler temperatures and possible precipitation in the weather forecast could bring some relief over the next few days, Hodder said.

Environment Canada is calling for highs in the mid to low teens on Thursday and Friday, with rain on both days. Rain is also forecast for Wednesday, but with thunderstorms that could also bring lightning — a potential spark for more fires.

The normal high for this time of year in the region is 22 C, but temperatures have reached into the high 20s and low 30s for all but three days since July 9.

For now, Coun. Hart is trying to arrange a space where the public can donate clothes and other items for the evacuees, and trying to get dog food out to the animals left back in the community.

She’s also working to arrange recreation activities for the kids in Winnipeg and helping others with medical appointments.

Hart says when evacuees are able to return, the first thing she plans to do is “to check if all my stuff is there still” while she settles in.

Daniels said he already knows the first thing he intends to do when he gets home: “Jump into our lake and have a swim.”

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