Manitoba First Nations add COVID-19 to worries as wildfire season approaches

By | May 18, 2020

The chief of a northern Manitoba First Nation says she’s already worried the summer wildfire season could bring more than just smoke to her community.

St. Theresa Point Chief Marie Wood says evacuations are always nerve-racking for many who live in the community of about 4,000 people. But this year, the risk of evacuees being exposed to COVID-19, and bringing it back to the isolated First Nation, adds to the stress.

“That’s going to happen if they have to stay in a hotel,” she said, of a potential scenario that would see people moved out of the community into hotels in Winnipeg. 

“We want to keep our elders safe.”

Wood’s community, which is about 465 kilometres north of Winnipeg in the Island Lake area, and only accessible by air, was among several First Nations evacuated in the summer of 2017 due to wildfires.

Nearly 1,100 people from St. Theresa Point — and thousands more from other Island Lake communities — were moved to Brandon and Winnipeg.

Forest fire evacuees from three Manitoba First Nations line up in halls of the RBC Convention Centre in August 2017. (Caroline Barghout/CBC)

Many of those evacuees were lodged in hotels, but hundreds of others ended up in large communal spaces like Winnipeg’s convention centre and a soccer complex.

In a statement, a Manitoba spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross said those kind of shelters are used only as a last resort if hotel capacity is exceeded.

“While we can’t speak to hypotheticals, I can say that our team is preparing to provide support for any First Nation in this province that may need support during an emergency,” said Jason Small. Those preparations include pandemic protocols that focus on physical distancing, he said.

“If an evacuation is necessary, the Red Cross will provide support while focusing on the safety of all people involved.”

Natural Resources Canada currently lists Manitoba’s fire risk at low. Its forecast projections for July and August have some parts of the province — and much of western Canada — in the high or extreme severity categories. 

Natural Resources Canada’s fire severity forecast says the danger is projected to be high in Manitoba, and much of Western Canada, in July. (Natural Resources Canada)

Wood wonders if elders should be moved out already in advance of any fire emergency, but is confident St. Theresa Point is prepared in case the novel coronavirus arrives there. 

“The community is prepared for a potential outbreak,” she said. “We have a lockdown in our community.”

People aren’t allowed in or out of the community unless it’s an emergency, she said, and a housing unit has been converted into a isolation centre for people who have flown in from Winnipeg.

Travel to other Island Lake communities has also been barred. 

There are no confirmed COVID-19 cases involving Manitoba First Nations so far, and travel has been restricted from other parts of the province to northern Manitoba.

But the chief of Little Grand Rapids, about 200 kilometres south of St. Theresa Point, shares Wood’s concerns about the possibility of evacuees returning with COVID-19.

“That’s been talked about, yes,” Chief Raymond Keeper told CBC News. 

Members of Keeper’s community were forced to leave their homes during fires in 2018 and 2019, and also stayed in hotels in Brandon and Winnipeg. 

But “we’ve been lucky so far,” he says, noting he thinks the risk of wildfire is low this year, because much of the forest around Little Grand Rapids remains scorched from last year’s fire. 

Wildfire service prepared 

David Schafer, the director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service, said the forecast maps and projections are only part of the equation.

“We were lucky enough to start the spring, so far, in good shape,” he said. “There was a lot of soil moisture from last fall’s excessive rains. We had good snowfall through the north.”

Schafer said the province is preparing for what it considers normal operations for the summer season — which involve staffing a full complement of air and ground crews.

Evacuees from Wasagamack First Nation line up at an airport in the nearby community of St. Theresa Point in order to catch a plane to safety in 2017. (Mark Wood Ganabook)

Still, the pandemic is front of mind. 

“It’s been the focus of our planning for the last four to six weeks — since the beginning of March,” Schafer said. 

He said discussions are underway with other jurisdictions on what the response will look if Manitoba brings in firefighting workers and equipment, or needs to export them, to lessen the risk of spreading COVID-19. 

He said Manitoba will be ready in the event the fire season becomes anything but normal. 

“It’s a hard one to predict at this time of year. It really is,” he said. 

In St. Theresa Point, Wood said she’s already telling her people to be fire safe while out hunting or trapping.  

“There’s many of them out there,” she said. “We did tell them to be careful with fire.”

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