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Wildfire tally tops 150 as thousands more evacuate northwestern Quebec

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MONTREAL – Wildfires in northwestern Quebec prompted thousands to evacuate the area over the weekend, as the number of blazes pushed past 150 and firefighters and the military poured into parts of the province to fight the encroaching flames — even as that threat eased slightly Sunday on the North Shore.

Some 5,500 residents of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, which borders Ontario, have been relocated, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel said at a news conference in Montreal.

Another 4,500 people in the North Shore community of Sept-Îles and its outskirts were also forced from their homes due to a pair of wildfires burning north of the city, but no further evacuations are planned at the moment, Bonnardel said.

Rain is expected in the area in the coming days — though not as much as initially forecasted — and the wind direction there and in Abitibi are favourable, he added.

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Nonetheless, the state of emergency in Sept-Îles, which sits about 890 kilometres northeast of Montreal, has been extended for five days, with evacuation orders in place at least through Monday morning. Some 100 soldiers were set to arrive Sunday evening to lend a hand, hot on the heels of the 100 who landed in the city Saturday.

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The number of forest fires in the province notched up to 156 Sunday from 134 the day before, including 35 actively being fought by teams from Quebec forest fire prevention organization SOPFEU.

“We concentrate our battles on these fires because we want to protect human life, the houses and enterprises. And we want to protect our infrastructure, like Hydro-Québec’s,” Bonnardel said at the news conference held alongside other public officials at provincial police headquarters.

Hundreds of soldiers will deploy across the province, joining 475 firefighters under SOPFEU’s banner, he said. An additional 200 provincial police officers are also deployed in the most affected regions.

“Within a few days, there should be more than 1,000 people on the ground to fight these fires,” Bonnardel said.

Included in that figure are 100 firefighters from France, en route to shore up the effort, French President Emmanuel Macron said in a Twitter post Sunday afternoon. “Canadian friends, reinforcements are coming,” he wrote in French.

“We are facing a situation that has never been seen,” said Natural Resources and Forests Minister Maïté Blanchette Vézina at the news conference in Montreal.

Residents are barred from entering the forests of several vast regions, including Northern Quebec, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean and parts of the North Coast, Outaouais, Mauricie, Lanaudière and the Laurentians, Vézina noted.

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On Saturday evening, the regional municipality of Val-d’Or announced the mandatory evacuation of several areas sparked by two wildfires and poor air quality. Located within Abitibi-Témiscamingue, the community is under a state of emergency.

No blazes are currently threatening the city of Val-d’Or itself, SOPFEU said Sunday. Between 6 p.m. on Saturday and 9 a.m. Sunday, public health officials had recommended staying home with the windows closed due to the smoky haze engulfing the area.

About 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, about 620 kilometres northwest of Montreal, received a mandatory evacuation notice on Friday evening due to nearby blazes. The thick smoke initially prevented planes from flying in the area Sunday morning before it cleared somewhat.

At a news conference in Sept-Îles, Mayor Steeve Beaupré said caution is key.

“The fire situation is evolving encouragingly, but it remains out of control and threatening for the municipality,” he said.

“The situation may not have gotten worse, but it has to get better … We made the decision to go gradually and watch the evolution for the next 24 hours.”

Things shift with the weather, warned SOPFEU spokeswoman Isabelle Gariépy.

“As long as it is not contained, the state of a fire can change depending on where we are with the temperature,“ she said.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.

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