Hundreds of Little Grand Rapids wildfire evacuees expected to go home next week, chief says

Hundreds of people who were forced from their eastern Manitoba First Nations community by wildfires months ago are expected to finally be able to go home early next week.

Little Grand Rapids Chief Raymond Keeper says most of the community members who have been staying in eight Winnipeg hotels since July will likely be able to fly home Monday, while those staying in four other hotels are expected to be able to follow the next day.

“I’m just happy that they will be returning. Some people have been begging to go home and I’ve been trying to bear with them and telling them, ‘It’s not long,'” he told CBC News on Saturday.

“I didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up until I got the final word.”

The community was evacuated due to wildfires in July.

While residents of a number of other First Nations were able to return home earlier in the summer, Little Grand Rapids community members couldn’t go home even after the threat from the fires had passed, because of damage to roughly 100 hydro poles providing power to the area.

The work of replacing the fire-damaged poles was made challenging by the lack of road access — meaning much of it must be done by helicopter — and the difficulty of setting poles in rocky Canadian Shield terrain, Manitoba Hydro previously told CBC. Weather conditions also caused delays.

In mid-September, the Crown corporation estimated it would take roughly four to six weeks to restore power.

Keeper said Saturday the poles have now been fixed, and the community has been given the go ahead to turn power back on.

Smoke from nearby wildfires clouds the sky in Little Grand Rapids First Nation in July. (Submitted by Colin Meekis)

CBC News has reached out to Manitoba Hydro for an update.

Right now, Keeper said work is being done to get homes ready for their families — flushing out stale water from holding tanks and refilling them with fresh supplies.

Lost summer

It was a tough season for  community members, especially the children, the chief said.

“Unfortunately, our summer went by with no enjoyment from the people,” he said.

“I know the kids used to have so much fun swimming on the docks there, and they weren’t able to do that this year. It’ll be nice to see them playing and going back to school — hopefully back to normal eventually.”

Keeper’s time as chief of the First Nation, about 265 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, has been been challenging, he said — including a previous evacuation in 2018.

“I don’t know what else I can put up with — two evacuations and one [pandemic]. That’s a lot for one person.”

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