As wildfires continue to rage on, thousands of people were forced to leave their homes after evacuations were ordered in two more communities in northern Quebec as the province faces “an unprecedented situation.”
Quebec Premier François Legault gave an update on the forest fires Wednesday, pleading with residents to abide by authorities’ instructions and put their safety first.
“Don’t put your life in danger,” Legault said. “When we ask you evacuate it’s because there’s a real risk.”
Evacuation orders were issued for Chibougamau, a city of about 7,500 in the central region of the province, as well as for 800 residents in the nearby Cree community of Ouje-Bougoumou. Officials ordered the evacuations Tuesday night due to approaching forest fires and shifting winds in the north.
Priscilla Bosum, a Ouje-Bougoumou resident, fled her community with her three daughters. Her husband and son stayed behind to help.
“The smoke got heavier and you could see the sky turning orange and I just had to get out of there because my kids were seeing it and they were smelling it and they were coughing,” Bosum told Global News.
Bosum said she’s still hopeful the flames the will move away from their beloved home.
“I was overwhelmed and my daughter was following the updates on social media and she was really crying,” she said. “She was saying ‘Mom that’s our home, we have so many memories there, everything you guys worked for.'”
“And I was telling her don’t worry about those things as long as we have each other.”
Legault said the province is also keeping a close eye on the Cree community of Mistissini, where another 4,000 people may have to leave their homes. Meanwhile, preventive evacuations were underway in parts of Senneterre in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region Wednesday.
The latest orders put the total number of people displaced by the wildfires at about 11,400 across Quebec, Legault said.
SOPFEU, the province’s forest fire prevention agency, reported 151 active forest fires as of 2 p.m. — the majority of which are out of control. More than 457,000 hectares have burned so far this season, the most since the province started keeping records.
“In the history of (the agency) — nearly 50 years — we’ve surpassed the worst year on record,” Natural Resources Minister Maïté Blanchette Vézina told reporters. “It’s a situation that’s unprecedented.”
The most troublesome areas, Legault said, were in northern Quebec and in the western Abitibi region, where significant rainfall isn’t expected until after the weekend. Residents shouldn’t expect to be able to return home before the middle of next week, Legault said.
“I want us all to be realistic so that we don’t see things through rose-coloured glasses,” the premier said. “For the moment, we do not expect rain for the next few days.”
Help from abroad on the way
Legault said with the manpower the province currently has, it can fight 40 fires at a time. SOPFEU has more than 500 workers on the ground while the Canadian Armed Forces has sent 150 soldiers to help.
More assistance is on the way to help local firefighters, he added.
“We hope to have more than 500 (people) in the next few days coming from New Brunswick, France, United States, Portugal, Spain and Mexico,” Legault said.
While officials are concerned with the ongoing fires in northern Quebec, Legault said the situation is gradually improving in the hard-hit city of Sept-Îles and the Côte-Nord region. A Hydro-Québec substation near Baie-Comeau was no longer under threat from fires Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Environment Canada has issued smog warnings and special air quality advisories for large swaths of Quebec, spanning from James Bay to Montreal.
The weather agency says conditions should improve gradually throughout the day in Montreal, where skies are hazy and a smoky smell has blanketed some parts.
Children with asthma and adults with respiratory illnesses or heart disease are advised to avoid intense physical activity outside until the smog warnings are lifted.
— with files from Global’s Gloria Henriquez and The Canadian Press
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