Hydro-Québec workers, vulnerable Cree community members evacuated due to wildfires

Much-needed rain fell in parts of northwestern Quebec on Friday, where high-intensity forest fires have forced the partial evacuation of a Cree community and employees of the province’s hydroelectric utility.

Audrey Marcoux, a spokeswoman for the province’s forest fire prevention agency, said parts of the James Bay, region had received about 20 millimetres of rain as of Friday morning.

Firefighters in northern Quebec had been struggling to slow down intense fires fuelled by high winds and dry conditions after weeks without rain. Marcoux said the rain would help fire efforts, but smoky conditions were making it difficult to get a full portrait of the situation.

The Cree Board of Health said seven planes were deployed to Wemindji on Wednesday and Thursday to evacuate more than 200 medically vulnerable people. Three more planes remained on standby, the board wrote in a Friday update on its website.

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“As conditions can change quickly people are asked to exercise extreme caution when travelling,” the message says.

Wemindji, on the east coast of James Bay, declared a state of local emergency on Wednesday and has said that more preventive evacuations were possible. The community also opened a “clean air shelter” at an arena for community members experiencing heavy smoke in their homes.

A Hydro-Québec spokesman said the public utility evacuated about 100 workers from the La Grande-3 dam in the James Bay region on Wednesday over concerns that roads or airports could get cut off.

Maxence Huard-Lefebvre said the situation has improved and that Hydro-Québec was evaluating Friday morning whether it was safe for its employees to return.

The smoke and strong winds in recent days also led authorities to close access to many parts of the 620-kilometre Billy Diamond Highway, a crucial link to many northwestern communities.

The Grand Council of the Crees issued an update Friday saying the rain “weakened the fires significantly” and has allowed the highway to reopen with access restricted to essential service providers, residents of the territory and for humanitarian reasons.

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