Specialized team helps fly-in community evacuate and return home

By Michelle Palansky, photo credit: Ellie Cansfield and Dale Hutchison
While Red Cross volunteers are known for their resourcefulness and dedication, there’s one team that really goes a step above and beyond: the Supporting Evacuation and Repatriation Team (SERT) team.

“Gets folks out – gets people back in.” That’s how Ellie Cansfield, one of the two-member SERT team that helped evacuate the last of the Little Grand Rapids, Manitoba wildfire evacuees nearly a month ago, described her role as a volunteer with the Red Cross.

Her team mate, Dale Hutchison explained, “SERT goes to the scene of the disaster and coordinates from within the community.”

Volunteer Ellie Cansfield at the airportEllie Cansfield has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for over three years. Semi-retired, she worked as a chartered accountant in Nunavut for over 30 years. A career as a CPA may not seem like the most obvious preparation for this work but Ellie explained that while working in Nunavut she learned to be flexible about working conditions which is an invaluable skill as a member of SERT.

The Little Grand Rapids evacuation was Dale’s first response. This work appeals to him because it’s exciting to go out to remote areas to respond to emergencies. Trained in resource management, Dale works with Manitoba Hydro in Waterway Community Engagement.

Dale Hutchison (left) along with fellow volunteerLocated approximately 280 kilometers north-northeast of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Little Grand Rapids is a fly-in community. On May 22, the Canadian Red Cross began evacuations of the community due to wildfires nearby. Aircraft evacuation efforts were slowed several times due to smoke.

Once they got the call, Ellie and Dale got ready and the next day, they headed to the airport.
It was a hurry-up-and-wait kind of day.

Initially they were delayed because there was too much smoke on the ground to land, and then issues with the plane.

View of the fire from the planeDale described the flight. “You fly pretty low so you get a good perspective of the fire. And you could see how dry it was because you could see rivers and lakes and how far the water had receded. You could see all of the exposed and dried up vegetation. Really drove home what a tinder box this area is right now.”

Phones had been out for awhile so they didn’t know what to expect when they landed. 

“They were running on empty when we arrived,” said Ellie. “As soon as we landed in the community, everyone said, ‘We’re so glad you’re here! We’re safe now.’ We had done nothing but get off the plane with our red vests on. Everyone’s stress levels went right down. The people were smiling. All we had to do was physically show up.”

When they arrived the air quality was not too bad. It smelled like barbecue and burned their eyes.

They liaised with the RCMP to see how they could help with the evacuation, tried to get a head count to relay back to the team in Winnipeg, and communicated with the Northern Store to distribute food and water.

“We had a great little sandwich bar set up with mustard and mayonnaise, rye and whole wheat,” Ellie and Dale laughed.

“It was important to make sure people were hydrated, and food just makes people more comfortable. It’s amazing how important food is when people are stressed,” said Ellie.

They also had the terrible task of informing everyone still waiting to evacuate that it was unsafe to fly and they were grounded for the evening.

“It was pretty deflating,” said Dale.

Residents of Little Grand Rapids board a plane as a wildfire is burning nearby

Before they completed the evacuation and headed back to Winnipeg the next day, Dale and Ellie had a chance to take a tour of the area.

Fire damaged trees

Looking back on their response, Ellie described the work that SERT does simply.

“Most of what we did was talking to people. Arranging things. Letting people describe their experiences. It’s not hard work. It’s communicating with folks. And we were providing as much support to the RCMP as we were to the evacuees. Just letting people talk about what happened. One guy was petrified he was going to be left behind. I told him that if you see me, you’re going, ‘cause I’m the last one on the plane. Don’t worry about it,” said Ellie.

This weekend, with the fire threat over, residents of Little Grand Rapids are finally beginning to return home. They will once again receive support from the Red Cross SERT team.

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