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Forest fires force thousands out of their homes in Quebec’s North Shore

With the number of out-of-control forest fires across Quebec having quickly multiplied, the city of Sept-Îles on the province’s North Shore has declared a local state of emergency and has put in place a mandatory evacuation order for several neighbourhoods.

The evacuation order affects about 5,000 residents in the region. The order is in effect for the Lac Daigle and Maliotenam sectors as well as areas east of downtown including Les Plages and Moisie. Residents must leave their homes by 4 p.m.

Fire burns through trees.
A forest fire continues to burn in Sept-Îles on Quebec’s North Shore. (Submitted by André Michel)

All non-urgent activities have been suspended at Sept-Îles hospital, the regional health centre that also serves the Minganie and the Lower North Shore.

Steeve Beaupré, mayor of Sept-Îles, said one of the two out of control forest fires in the region spread south, near Sept-Îles, overnight. After progressing quickly Friday morning, by the afternoon, he said it was developing more slowly.

In a news conference, Beaupré said the city does not foresee more evacuations on Friday based on the information they have about the two fires burning but they want to be proactive.

“We do not want people to put themselves in danger,” said Beaupré. “We want to preserve our population.”

With 120 fires burning, Quebec asks for army’s help

Across Quebec, the situation is quickly becoming more challenging for firefighters.

The province’s fire prevention agency, the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU), is warning Quebecers that more fires are out of control than the agency can handle.

On Friday morning, there were 120 fires with over 12,000 hectares affected. At least 80 of them are now considered out of control, according to SOPFEU. Earlier in the day, the agency had said there were 10 out-of-control fires.

SOPFEU says some of the new fires were caused by lightning and the agency will not have enough resources to fight them all. It is giving priority to fires surrounding residences or very important infrastructure. SOPFEU spokesperson, Stéphane Caron, told Radio-Canada’s Tout un matin they only have the capacity to fight 30 fires at a time.

“Our priority is the protection of communities people live in and strategic, essential infrastructure,” said Caron.

Lineup of cars on curving road.
After officials announced a mandatory evacuation order, traffic slowed on roads leading out of Sept-Îles, Que., on June 2, 2023. (William Phénix/Radio-Canada)

The situation in the town of Chapais in northern Quebec — where about 1,000 people had to leave their homes this week — has improved, but Caron said the biggest worry is about the fires in Sept-Îles.

In an interview with CBC, Caron said some of the smaller fires could merge and become a big fire. 

He said SOPFEU has asked for help, but with so many crews battling fires in Eastern and Western Canada, it might have to call on foreign firefighting teams, such as from the United States. Right now, he says there are 400 firefighters working in Quebec. 

On Friday, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel, announced on Twitter that he has asked Ottawa to deploy the Canadian Armed Forces to help fight the fires. 

“We collaborate very well and are doing everything we can to help the people of the North Shore,” read the tweet. 

The chief of Uashat Mak Mani-utenam, Mike Pelash Mckenzie, held a news conference Friday morning to declare a local state of emergency in his community and announce, alongside areas of neighbouring Sept-Îles, they are evacuating the community of 1,500 people before 7 p.m.

He says residents will have access to a bus for transportation and can meet at the parking lot of the church. 

“The shelter that is available for those evacuated is in Pessamit. The community generously agreed to support us in this difficult time,” said Mckenzie. 

WATCH | Fires burn across Quebec, rain not expected for days:

forest fires force thousands out of their homes in quebecs north shore 2

Quebec forest fires update

18 hours ago

Duration 1:00

As of Friday morning, 80 fires were burning out of control, forcing thousands from their homes.

Residents never seen anything like this before

Charlotte Mckenzie, the director of co-ordination at a local radio station in Mani-Utenam, says that on Friday she saw people arrive at the church parking lot, ready to leave the community.

“People are scared. The city is anxious,” said Mckenzie. “I am waiting to go to Pessamit. I am scared a little bit, but I am a strong woman.”

She says the weather forecast does not look good, with no rain expected in the next couple of days. 

She says she will leave the community with her four children. She worries about her home. Last night, the smoke was visible in the community with ash falling from the sky. 

Macgali Fontaine, a resident of Mani-Utenam, doesn’t want to worry her two children.

“There is definitely a state of panic. But I don’t want to panic because I have young kids and I don’t want to make them anxious,” said Fontaine.  “The fire is about 10 kilometres from us.”

She says her family will relocate to Pessamit, where she has relatives. 

Karine Laperrière, a resident of Sept-Îles, Que. left for her cottage located 40 minutes west of town after her neighbourhood, Les Plages, was also put under an evacuation order Friday. 

She’s lived in town for 12 years and says she has never seen a situation like this before.

“The important thing is we’ve secured important documents and belongings that are dear to us and we have our daughter with us and our family is safe for us,” said Laperrière. “That’s what’s important.” 

Laperrière says she is worried the evacuation order could last longer than expected. Right now, she is prepared to spend about four days away from home. 

Limited spots in temporary shelter

Beaupré said there is support for residents relocating, but there are only 600 to 700 spots in the temporary shelter the city is setting up and only a handful of hotel rooms available locally.  He says he is in communication with other cities to see if they can offer some temporary housing support. 

Isabelle Gariépy, who spoke on behalf of the fire protection agency during Friday’s news conference, says there is a team working strategically to calm the fire and prevent others. 

“We have repeated this over the past week. This fire is extreme. The flammability index is super high. There are moments when the fire exceeds our capacity to work. And that’s why we are using all the tactics we can,” said Gariépy. 

Denis Clements, Sept-Îles’s director of community services, says the city is focused on minimizing the impact on residents. On Friday afternoon he asked residents to be prepared to leave their homes, if necessary.

“This kind of situation is not very frequent,” said Clements. 

“We are going step by step. We have a plan but we have to improvise to make sure the most people in Sept-Îles are in security.”

Quebec City’s fire service announced they are sending two teams to help the firefighters in Sept-Îles.

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