BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
A property in Vita destroyed by wildfires Tuesday. A state of emergency was declared in the community shortly after noon.
VITA — If a fire truck hadn’t appeared down the street at precisely the same time as Joe Roman noticed his back deck and a nearby cedar tree had caught fire, his house would have burned to the ground in a matter of minutes.
Smoke rises from the Highway 201 bridge east of Vita on Tuesday. (BORIS MINKEVICH/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)
"I waved the truck over and told (the firefighters), ‘You might just save a house here.’ If they hadn’t come by, I think it would have been a goner," he said.
A neighbour down the street and two other homeowners in this community about 120 kilometres southeast of Winnipeg weren’t nearly so lucky. Their homes were destroyed by a wildfire that swept through southeastern Manitoba Tuesday afternoon.
A bridge just east of town collapsed after catching fire, too.
By mid-afternoon, smoke permeated the town. Just down the street from Vita’s Shevchenko School, the infield and outfield grass of the baseball diamond were charcoal black.
A state of emergency was declared shortly after noon and the town was evacuated. Firefighters and town officials went door to door in fire trucks, SUVs and all-terrain vehicles to make sure nobody stayed behind.
Despite the fact that residents were told to leave immediately, RM of Stuartburn Reeve Jim Swidersky said the evacuation was orderly.
"There was no time to pay attention to people’s moods or to panic. It was, ‘Get everybody out,’ " he said.
Indeed, in front of Vita’s hospital, a half-dozen wheelchairs were strewn about, a sign that patients were whisked away to safety at a moment’s notice.
The wildfire left firefighters feeling completely helpless, said Mike Purtill, a fire investigator with the Manitoba Office of the Fire Commissioner.
"It’s a fire you can’t fight. It moves so fast it generates its own wind and makes so much heat. It’s controlled by Mother Nature. It picks and chooses what’s going to burn," he said.
A wildfire doesn’t allow firefighters to take any preventative action away from the heart of the blaze because of its speed and unpredictability, Purtill said.
"It’s very dangerous for firefighters," he said.
Purtill wouldn’t hazard a guess how the fire started, but he knew Vita dodged the mother of all bullets.
"I don’t even know where it came from. The entire town could have been completely destroyed," he said.
By nightfall, numerous small fires were still burning outside the town limits. Amid the smouldering fields, livestock huddled on the rare patches of unscorched earth.
The call to allow residents to come back to their homes was made just before 6 p.m. Roman and his wife, Jane, used the opportunity to pile as many personal belongings as they could into their vehicles. With much of the ground surrounding their bungalow still smoking — an old pickup truck and a canoe were casualties of the fire — they knew it was too dangerous to spend the night. Instead, they were heading to a hotel in nearby Steinbach.
"We’re fortunate. We’ve still got our roof. It’s a little smoky inside," he said.
Residents southeast of Vita had not been cleared to go back to their homes as of late Tuesday. Swidersky said fires burning near about 20 homes still had the potentially to rear up and get out of control quickly if the wind didn’t co-operate.
"We’re expecting the wind to change from the northeast. That would be a blessing for the town," he said.
The province said Tuesday afternoon it was sending three water bombers to douse fires near Vita and Richer. Two more planes from Ontario are helping out.
Hot, dry conditions and high winds are driving grass and brush fires in several areas, including near Milner Ridge and St. Malo.
Municipal and provincial staff are also fighting fires in the municipalities of Grahamdale and St. Laurent.
A government spokesman said Tuesday that Premier Greg Selinger is planning to visit the southeast fire region this morning.
Meanwhile, Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship issued back-country travel restrictions for the area on Tuesday.
Included is the area east of PR 302 to the Ontario border and south of the Trans-Canada Highway to the U.S. border. Back-country travel is now allowed by permit only.
» Winnipeg Free Press
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition October 3, 2012