The province marshalled bulldozers and helicopters Thursday to fight a forest fire south of St. Theresa Point, an Oji-Cree First Nation where hundreds have been evacuated by air.

The measures to fight the fire, the first directed at the flames since evacuations started earlier this week, are to provide reassurance, not because the fire is a threat to the First Nation, said Gary Friesen, fire program manager for Manitoba Conservation.

“It’s just to provide extra security to the community as well as peace of mind,” Friesen told media Thursday.

There’s no direct threat to St. Theresa Point because the fire, about eight kilometres south of the community, is holding at 5,000 hectares in size, Friesen said.

His statements came after northern chiefs accused the province of leaving them to fight the fire on their own.

Oji-Cree residents at St. Theresa Point, a community of nearly 4,000 located 720 kilometres north of Winnipeg, are alarmed because up to now the province had put no resources into fighting the fire, Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief David Harper said Thursday.

The issue isn’t evacuations, he said. It’s a dispute over who’s responsible for setting priorities on fighting forest fires.

First Nations have pressed the province to fund them to fight fires for years and open up better communications when fires start.

The province’s decision to start fighting the St. Theresa Point fire came after northern chiefs met with federal officials to ask them to intercede, Harper said.

“What Conservation is saying to the First Nations is these fires are an act of God. When you see fires going out of control, that’s not an excuse for First Nations.” Harper said. “What the community is saying is this fire could have been avoided. And if it had been dealt with, we wouldn’t have all these evacuations.”

The province has no jurisdiction with First Nations over resources or threats to them, including forest fires. They have be to be invited to get involved, officials said.

Daren Mini, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Native Fire Fighters, said his agency co-ordinates evacuations, sending planes in and arranging with the province for hotel rooms.

Friesen said the decision to bring firefighters to St. Theresa Point on the ground came after a meeting Wednesday with First Nation leaders.

“There are two helicopters, three bulldozers and firefighters working on the north part of the fire… the entire fire isn’t being fought. It’s just the north part, closest to the community,” Friesen said.

Planes that were to fly evacuees south have returned to Winnipeg empty twice in the past week, Harper confirmed.

And now there is a looming shortage of hotel rooms in Winnipeg and Brandon to accommodate the sick, elderly and other evacuees with health issues, various officials confirmed.

 Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 27, 2012 A8

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