WINNIPEG — Many of the 3,700 people fleeing northern Manitoba forest fires were still waiting to fly south on Thursday, more than 24 hours after they left their homes on a journey made complicated by a lack of transportation.
"They're tired. They're frustrated. There's anger," Chief Alex McDougall of Wasagamack First Nation said as he waited along with hundreds of others to board one of two military transport planes bound for Winnipeg, more than 500 kilometres to the south.
"Some of us have been sleeping in terminals. Some of us have been sleeping in gymnasiums. There is some food being provided by the local (grocery) stores."
All 2,000 residents of Wasagamack had to leave Tuesday as a large forest fire came within 800 metres of the community. Because there is no airstrip, people took turns piling into boats in small groups for a 20-minute journey across a section of Island Lake to St. Theresa Point.
Smoke from the blaze also forced out people with health problems from the St. Theresa Point and Garden Hill reserves. Small charter planes, that can carry between nine and 45 people, began ferrying people south to Brandon and Winnipeg on Wednesday, but a backlog persisted.
Thursday morning, two Hercules military transport planes, each capable of carrying 100 people, joined the effort. But the large aircraft could only use the airstrip at Garden Hill, McDougall said, so he and others had to take a two-hour trip by barge from St. Theresa Point to Garden Hill.
In Winnipeg, the Canadian Red Cross prepared to welcome the evacuees by turning a 4,300-square-metre hall at the city's convention centre into an emergency shelter. Volunteers, including members of the Bear Clan Patrol — a non-profit that keeps an eye on inner-city streets — were busy setting up more than 1,000 cots, dozens of eating tables and more.
"We're going to have an area where people can get personal services like hygiene products, hygiene kits, health needs, that sort of thing," said Shawn Feely, the Canadian Red Cross's regional vice-president.
"Then we have the sleep area ... and then we have the eating area and the recreation area. So for little kids, we'll have people running activities."
By early afternoon, there was a long lineup of evacuees to register at the convention centre. Among them was Malcolm Harper, who had spent two nights in transit with his wife and three children, aged four, 11 and 13 after leaving Wasagamack for St. Theresa Point.
"The first night, they put us in classrooms in the school ... you could hear everybody, kids crying," he said.
"It's frustrating, especially on the kids. You've got to keep them together."
Other evacuees, however, were being put up in hotel rooms throughout Winnipeg and Brandon.
Darlene Monias, standing in line at the convention centre, said she's grateful to be safe but wonders why she wasn't selected for the more private accommodations.
"How am I going to handle my babies? They're six and eight, they're all running around."
Still 'heavy smoke and fires burning'
Kevin Hart, a regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations, said having elders sleeping on cots in the crowded convention centre is simply unacceptable.
"The respect for our elders is first and foremost," he said. "I can't see that being a problem, with young able-bodies people transferring out of hotels to give up their beds for the elders."
The Manitoba government said the forest fire was still about one kilometre from Wasagamack, and crews were working the line closest to the community to prevent it from advancing.
McDougall said from his vantage point in Garden Hill Thursday morning — just before boarding a Hercules — the smoke seemed to be blowing away.
"We have some relief today from the smoke but ... there's still some heavy smoke and fires burning in the area."
— with files from CTV Winnipeg