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Residents trapped as fire creeps closer

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WINNIPEG—The federal government said it is stepping up efforts to evacuate two Manitoba First Nations that are threatened by a raging wildfire.

Public Safety Canada said about 600 people were expected to be evacuated from the Little Grand Rapids and Pauingassi First Nations by the end of the day yesterday, with more to follow.

“Evacuations can continue into the evening as additional lights have been set up at the community airport,” the department said in a release.

“Evacuations will continue into the evening and tomorrow [Thursday].”

The Canadian Red Cross estimates about 1,400 people will be forced from their homes about 260 km northeast of Winnipeg.

Federal officials said the fire conditions early yesterday evening indicated the wind was blowing the flames away from the communities.

Crews were deployed to fight any fires that break out on the reserves.

Leaders from Little Grand Rapids First Nation are furious, saying the federal and provincial governments hindered their efforts to evacuate their fly-in community earlier in the week.

About 630 people were huddled, many with blankets covering their faces, in a smoky gymnasium at the school in Little Grand Rapids, the leaders said.

“It's very frustrating, and in the back of your mind when you think about it, it could have been prevented,” said Little Grand Rapids Coun. Clinton Keeper.

“Measures could have been taken,” he charged.

The fire started on Monday and was caused by person, said a statement from Manitoba Sustainable Development.

It was small and fire crews thought it could be contained. But as the winds picked up, it grew to about 50 sq. km.

By yesterday, it was 200 sq. km in size.

The chief and council said they contacted Indigenous Services Canada on Monday requesting help with an evacuation.

Keeper said the federal government sought guidance from Sustainable Development, which relayed the message that the fire was under control.

However, Sustainable Development said staff tried to contact the chief and council but couldn't reach them.

As the flames crept closer and the sky filled with smoke, the chief and council said they reached out to the federal government for help again on Tuesday.

It wasn't until ashes started falling on the community that action was taken in the evening, the First Nation leaders said.

“People were so happy to get out,” Keeper said.

“They were told to go to the airport," he noted. "They went to the airport and next thing you know they were told to wait.”

The blaze had burned too close to the airport and the thick smoke kept the planes from landing. Only 63 people were able to be removed.

The rest were taken back to the school, which was being protected by sprinklers.

The province “knew . . . that it was dry, that the fire was going to spread, that it was going to get bigger, but it got worse,” said Keeper.

“They are lucky there's nobody that died in there so far," he added. "There's been quite a few houses that burnt and luckily there's nobody in there.”

Initial reports said 11 houses were destroyed.

Grand Chief Jerry Daniels of the Southern Chiefs Organization said the delayed response shows that First Nations need to oversee emergency services and responses for their own communities.

“We shouldn't be asking for help on these things,” he stressed.

“We should be given the proper resources to help ourselves.”

Crews from Manitoba and Ontario are fighting the wildfire, along with waterbombers from Quebec.

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