MONTREAL — Northern Quebec's largest city was being evacuated while another that had been threatened by wildfires lifted an evacuation order Tuesday, as authorities turned their attention to communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the province where firefighters worked to beat back threats from out-of-control blazes.
"We're following all of this from hour to hour, obviously," Premier François Legault told reporters in Sept-Îles, Que. "If we look at the situation in Quebec as a whole, there are several places where it is still worrying."
Late Tuesday, authorities issued an evacuation order for Chibougamau, a city of about 7,500 in the central region of the province. Authorities said the evacuation was underway and promised more details Wednesday.
According to the province's forest fire prevention agency, more than 150 forest fires were burning in the province on Tuesday, including more than 110 deemed out of control.
Legault said the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region in northwestern Quebec is an area of particular concern, with the communities of Normétal and Lebel-sur-Quévillon under threat.
The mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, where about 2,100 people were forced from their homes on the weekend, said the fire is about 10 kilometres outside of town, but its advance has been slower than expected. "The fire started in an area where there were no trees, which slowed it down considerably," Guy Lafrenière said.
Other northern communities at risk include Chibougamau, where crews have been creating firebreaks, and the Cree village of Chisasibi on the eastern shore of James Bay. Firefighting resources have also been dispatched to Hydro-Québec's Micoua substation near Baie-Comeau, Legault said.
On Monday, Legault said authorities had no choice but to leave the hamlet of Clova to burn, drawing the ire of local residents. Legault said Tuesday that he had simply repeated what fire prevention officials told him: the fire around the tiny community about 325 kilometres northwest of Montreal was too intense to send water bombers. That remained true Tuesday, he said, but he noted that no homes had burned.
Dominic Vincent, the owner of the Auberge Restaurant Clova, said that by Monday afternoon, the situation in the area had already improved, aided by cooler temperatures and a change in wind direction. While smoke remained visible, it was far less intense, he said.
Vincent said that for three days residents worked with crews from Quebec's forest fire prevention agency, SOPFEU, to protect the village.
“SOPFEU cut firebreaks and we filled tanks with water, along with our friends from the outfitters next to us, to be able to help the places that didn’t have water and then we tried to stop the fire along the side of the roads,” he said in an interview.
With so many fires burning, Legault said authorities were focusing on towns and critical infrastructure. He met with civil security officials and firefighting teams in Sept-Îles, Que., where an evacuation order affecting about 4,500 residents of the town and the nearby Innu community of Mani-Utenam was lifted Tuesday.
Sept-Îles Mayor Steeve Beaupré told a separate news conference that the fire was no longer deemed a threat, but he warned residents to be ready to leave again should the situation change.
“I want to make it clear that the fight is far from over," Beaupré said after delivering the good news. "The fire is still large and active and it could remain so for several days, even several weeks, which means that we could be forced to evacuate certain sectors of Sept-Îles again."
Meanwhile, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel was in northwestern Quebec where he said more firefighters were expected Wednesday. He said there are concerns for hydro transmission lines and a high-speed internet connection link to the North.
He defended the government's response to the fires, saying the province is doing everything it can, but all provinces are dealing with their own wildfires.
"We're experiencing an unprecedented situation, exceptional, everywhere on Quebec territory," Bonnardel said. "We've never had so many fires so early in the season, it's not just a problem for Quebec, it's a problem all over Canada."
Another 250 firefighters are expected in the region in the coming days to join the 230 already on the ground, Bonnardel said.
Natural Resources Minister Maïté Blanchette Vézina told reporters in Quebec City that evacuees across the province number just over 8,300, down from 10,000 to start the week, but the Abitibi region remains a concern. "We are not expecting rain in the short term, which is what makes it more difficult to fight fires," Blanchette Vézina said.
Forest access bans remain in effect for several regions, and open fires are banned throughout Quebec.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 6, 2023.
Jacob Serebrin and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press