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Quebec premier worries about western Quebec fires with no rain expected for 5 days

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault says his government is looking internationally for support as it struggles to battle more than 160 forest fires.
A group of tourists look east from a lookout on Mount Royal on Monday, June 5, 2023. A smog warning is in effect for Montreal and multiple regions of the province due to forest fires. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

MONTREAL — Quebec Premier François Legault says his government is looking internationally for support as it struggles to battle more than 160 forest fires.

With more than 480 wilderness firefighters on the ground, Quebec can fight around 30 fires, Legault told reporters Monday, adding that normally firefighters would come from other provinces to help.

"When I talk to the premiers of other provinces, they have their hands full," Legault told a briefing in Quebec City.

He said no lives have been lost in the fires, but firefighters were forced to pull back from the hamlet of Clova, Que., around 325 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

"Unfortunately, we lost control," Legault said. "We are going to be obliged to let Clova burn." Authorities said the community's 36 residents have been evacuated.

Later in the day, Quebec's wildfire prevention agency, SOPFEU, said the intensity of the fire in the area had exceeded the capacity of water bombers, but it was continuing to work to protect the community. It said on Twitter that no residences had yet been destroyed, though some cottages may have burned.

Legault said an additional 200 firefighters are coming from France and the United States, and Quebec is also in talks with Costa Rica, Portugal and Chile as it searches for additional resources.

Fires have forced about 10,000 people from their homes in the province, with most of those in the northwestern Abitibi region and the eastern Côte-Nord region.

Few of those residents will be able to return home in the short term, Legault said. "The winds are changing rapidly and we have to follow the weather."

With rain forecast for the Côte-Nord, Legault said he is now most worried about the Abitibi, where no rain is expected for five days.

On Monday afternoon, the municipality of St-Lambert, along the Ontario border in Abitibi, declared a state of emergency and ordered its 200 residents to leave their homes. The neighbouring community of Normétal was evacuated the day before. 

Normétal is one of two communities in the area that the government is watching closely, Legault said. The other is Lebel-sur-Quévillon. Firefighters there did an "extraordinary" job to protect a pulp mill, spraying it with water for hours, Legault said. 

"It was very close, but they managed to save it, but there's now another fire, coming from another direction that's approaching Lebel-sur-Quévillon," he said. 

More than 160 fires have been reported in the province, including at least 114 that are out of control. More than 173,000 hectares have burned this year in Quebec's "intensive protection fire zone" — the area where normally all fires are actively fought — compared with a 10-year average of 247 hectares as of the same date, SOPFEU said.

Kateri Champagne Jourdain, the minister responsible for the Côte-Nord region, told a news conference that the fires in her region northeast of Quebec City were unprecedented. She spoke in Sept-Îles, Que., a city threatened by two fires — including one no more than seven kilometres away — with a third burning not far away.

The risk hit home during a helicopter flight over the fires Sunday, Champagne Jourdain said. 

“We saw that in an instant, the situation could change. So even though it may seem like it’s far at times, the fires are at our doors,” she said. “The force and the size of the fire was stunning, so we absolutely have to let the teams gain ground.”

She said 138 Canadian Armed Forces members arrived in the area Sunday, with another 100 expected Monday, adding that the troops have received training so they can support the province's wilderness firefighters.

With the help of the soldiers and a weather forecast that includes significant rain, Sept-Îles Mayor Steeve Beaupré said he’s hopeful the fire nearest his city can be brought under control in the coming days. The other fire is moving north, away from the city, but it grew Sunday afternoon.

Beaupré said an evacuation order that has forced about 4,500 people from their homes remained in effect, and he encouraged people to avoid going outside because of the heavy smoke.

“We all know you’re anxious to get back to your homes, but I’d like to ask for a bit more patience, so that when it is possible to return, you can sleep soundly knowing that you and all the members of your family are safe,” he said.

Smoke from the fires has also led to Environment Canada smog warnings across large swaths of Quebec, including in Montreal, where the city's public health department encouraged residents to stay inside and close their windows due to the smoke.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 5, 2023. 

— With files from Frédéric Lacroix-Couture.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press