A Tuesday flight may have had the furriest passengers a St. Andrews airport has ever seen.
Close to two weeks ago, Pauingassi First Nation, a community approximately 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg was evacuated due to wildfires. Custom Helicopters offered Manitoba Animal Alliance their services, free of charge, to evacuate the animals left behind. Melanie Chudyk, a volunteer coordinator with Manitoba Animal Alliance, says when they arrived they were immediately greeted by the dogs left behind.
"As soon as we landed, we had a dog actually jump into the helicopter with us before the rotor stopped spinning," Chudyk says on Tuesday. "It was great to see happy, healthy dogs starving for human attention."
As they walked to their vehicle from the helicopter, the group was immediately tailed by dogs. Chudyk says it was heartwarming.
"It was incredibly eerie walking through, essentially a smalltown because these northern communities are small towns, walking through these communities and seeing no people."
Chudyk says they were in crisis mode on the ground, literally crawling on their bellies underneath a house, trying to rescue a dog who lost her puppy.
Initially, they had thought they were bringing back eight dogs. The group soon discovered many more were left, leaving Chudyk and others with the heartbreaking decision as to who to being back with them.
In all, 18 of the youngest, oldest, and injured dogs were loaded up.
On Tuesday evening, a group of people arrived, helping each other set up kennels in the hot parking lot as they waited for the dogs to arrive. People wanting to help outnumbered the number of dogs set to touchdown at the rural airport.
At 6 p.m., the helicopter full of dogs touched down in the community north of Winnipeg, a welcome sight for Pauingassi evacuee Rena Knopp.
"I am happy that she is going to be ok," Knopp says, beaming. Knopp gets to share the good news with her 12-year-old daughter when she returns to her hotel.
Knopp is staying in a hotel with her family and cannot take their dogs back with her. Knopp does not know when they will be reunited again or if she will see her dog Annie before her puppies are born, but is comforted knowing they are safe and will be cared for by volunteers.
Volunteers such as Amanda Mann took the dogs home, giving them a space to be cared for as their owners stay in Winnipeg and Brandon hotels.
"This is really important to me. I am a sucker for dogs and it is just so sad," Mann shares, saying she will take as many dogs as she can.
She and her family were taking a break from fostering, but she, along with many other volunteers who showed up at the tarmac, felt called to help.
No one knows when people will return to Pauingassi or how long the dogs will stay in foster care.
Chudyk says as they flew back they saw other fires burning. She hopes they can return to help more dogs.
Custom Helicopters is no stranger to unusual flights. Their Trauma Flight Manitoba team, whose helicopter was used Tuesday, is able to make medical trips, but they don't have clearance from Shared Health. In a statement, Shared Health says this is because of their current contract with STARS.
"STARS currently is contracted to provide rotary-wing response to emergencies and inter-facility transfers. The company also assists in response to critical incidents and emergent transfers on fixed-wing aircrafts, with specialty teams from both STARS and Shared Health’s ERS patient transport division providing services on provincial planes flown by Babcock/Vanguard," the spokesperson says.