When everyone from Pukatawagan was leaving the northern Manitoba community to flee the dangers of wildfires, Desmond Castel decided to stay back.
Castel says he thought about his three dogs and he didn’t want to go.
“The dogs are like our best friends. They’re everything to our family,” he told CBC News on Saturday.
“[In] that moment … it was the love for my dogs, as well the dogs in my community, that kept me here.”
Castel is part of the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, also known as Pukatawagan, which is currently under evacuation. The remote community, located 800 kilometers northwest of Winnipeg, is close to an out-of-control wildfire that has grown to nearly 530 square kilometers in size.
The fire started in mid-July and since then, nearly 2,500 residents fled to Flin Flon, Dauphin, The Pas, Thompson and Winnipeg for safety. But as many left promptly by train or plane, few were able to bring their pets with them.
Castel, who has constable training, says he knows staying behind is dangerous — but it was a risk he was willing to take.
“I understand that everybody can’t really do what we can do,” he said. “There was a close call a couple of times. A close call. I’m not going to lie about that — that I was going to be under fire.”
Castel said when the evacuation began, he started grabbing every dog left behind that he could and brought them to his place to care for them.
It started with 12 puppies, but now, he has 34 dogs in his yard, he said.
“Every day a new dog showed up … I didn’t go and look for them. They just showed up in my yard. They knew where the food was, so every day, a brand-new dog,” Castel said.
In addition to caring for the ones at his house, Castel is making rounds in the community to check on the animals left in people’s homes and feed them daily. Some owners have reached out to him, giving him specific instructions, he said.
Help from animal alliance
Debra Vandekerkhove, managing director and founder of the Manitoba Animal Alliance, says they had volunteers go to Pukatawagan in the early days of the evacuation to help feed animals and provide supplies. But eventually, the volunteers had to leave, she said.
Since then, the non-profit organization has been helping Castel with his efforts.
“We’re communicating with owners and getting back to them and then also continually making sure that there’s food up there … collecting donations for him for food because there’s no power, there’s no grocery store open, and there’s no running water,” Vandekerkhove said .
Vandekerkhove said the organization is currently raising money so they can go back to Pukatwagan, and she estimates there are hundreds of animals Castel is caring for.
“He certainly can’t keep continuing to do this by himself. We need to get our support team up there and just give them that little bit of a break and do the work for him,” she said.
Vandekerkhove says in the coming days, she’ll be reaching out to the First Nation’s leadership and the province to see how they plan to handle the animals left behind. She said frequently, when evacuation efforts are executed in Indigenous communities, no funding is provided to care for animals.
Vandekerkhove and Castel anticipate that evacuations will have to remain away from home for at least a few more weeks.
In an emailed statement, the Red Cross says it’s not aware of anyone returning to the community yet.
“The decision on when it is time to return home is up to the leadership of the community. Until that time, the Canadian Red Cross will continue to support the evacuated community members,” said spokesperson Jason Small.
CBC News contacted Mathias Colomb Chief Lorna Bighetty for an interview, but have not received a response by deadline.