Manitobans driven from homes by wildfire might return by weekend, says official

'I don't want people to get a false sense of security. This is still a huge fire': wildfire service director

A wildfire north of Cranberry Portage hasn't moved closer to the Manitoba community since an emergency evacuation forced everyone to leave on the weekend, raising hope evacuees could return home in a few days.

"I'm feeling good about the work the fire crews are doing and, in fact, hopefully by the weekend we can perhaps get the folks back into Cranberry Portage," Earl Simmons, the director of the Manitoba Wildfire Service, told CBC Manitoba Information Radio host Marcy Markusa on Wednesday morning.

"We were fortunate enough that yesterday Manitoba Hydro crews worked hard and restored power to Cranberry Portage and Bell MTS also restored all of their services throughout the area, including up to Flin Flon. So it was a good day yesterday."

The latest news Simmons had Wednesday morning was that the fire remained about 1½ kilometres from Cranberry Portage, which is about 600 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. However, it did grow slightly in a different direction.

There were a few places where the flames jumped the fire line, though water bombers got on it quickly, he said.

LEARN MORE: Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub for all wildfire updates across Canada

"So it's a little bit bigger but none of the areas of concern were affected by that," he said, referring to Cranberry Portage and Flin Flon, which is northwest of Cranberry Portage at the Saskatchewan border.

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"We're going to get an up-to-date map today."

CBC - northern Manitoba fire - Justin Fraser

Columns of wildfire smoke rise above the northern Manitoba forest near Cranberry Portage. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

The fire on Tuesday was about 31,600 hectares in size, or 316 square kilometres, up from 31,000 hectares, Simmons said.

"I don't want people to get a false sense of security. This is still a huge fire. It's going to require a lot of work," he said.

Crews from Ontario have arrived to help and will be joined later in the week by 20 personnel from Quebec and another 20 from New Brunswick, he said.

A decision about when evacuees will be allowed to return will be made once the fire line closest to Cranberry Portage has been fully secured and "we feel comfortable that there's no way that fire can come into the community," Simmons said.

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"The challenging thing with this is, because the conditions are so extremely dry up there, the fires burned down deep, so the firefighters have to get in there and dig really deep into the ground to put it out. And we're not just talking a few inches, we're talking metres into the ground in spots."

About 580 residents have been forced to evacuate, the province said in its latest fire bulletin Wednesday afternoon.

Charred hydro poles and trees are seen near Cranberry Portage - Brittany Greenslade - CBC

Charred hydro poles and trees are seen near Cranberry Portage. (Brittany Greenslade/CBC)

Information for evacuees is also being updated on the rural municipality of Kelsey's website.

"This fire acted uncharacteristically — it took off and we were quite concerned about the community, and those folks were really great in getting out of there," Simmons said.

"It must have been really, really scary for them, and we appreciate the support from those folks and we're working hard to get them back into their community."

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Typically, fires can be caught early enough to contain and extinguish them, but this one grew rapidly, driven by high winds and drought conditions, Simmons said.

"There was no way that we could stop this fire [from growing]."

RELATED: Massive out-of-control wildfire near Flin Flon forces evacuations

Though he called its actions atypical, based on the historical pattern of fires, Simmons worries the ferocity of the Cranberry Portage fire could become more common.

"The climate is definitely changing, and our fire seasons are growing longer and the fires are growing more intense," he said.

"We're going to have to build up our arsenal of resources to be able to deal with these situations … so that we can be able to respond to these types of events."

That means increasing the number of crews in the Manitoba Wildfire Service "so that we have more folks readily available when these fires break out," he said.

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"It was good that the premier was there to see all the destruction and how fast it can occur."

WATCH: How wildfire movements are monitored by the experts

Premier Wab Kinew was given an aerial tour of the fire zone on Tuesday and called it "a very dramatic, serious situation."

Although Manitoba's NDP government was criticized Monday for the $50 million it set aside for emergency management in this year's provincial budget — half of what the Progressive Conservatives budgeted the year before — Kinew said his government will make sure "every resource goes out the door" to put out the fires and help evacuees.

The province said Highway 10 — which connects Flin Flon and Cranberry Portage — is open from Bakers Narrows to Highway 39 between 8 a.m. until midnight, but drivers will be escorted down the road by police. The Sherridon access road at Highway 10 remains closed.

More fire crews from Ontario are expected to arrive this weekend.

This article, written by Darren Bernhardt, was originally published for CBC News