Firefighters facing “a real monster,” Que. official says

Firefighters continued to battle Monday major forest fires inching closer to the native reserve of Wemotaci in central Quebec as winds blew thick smoke hundreds of kilometres way to Montreal and Ottawa.

The province’s forest fire protection agency, the Sopfeu, said 47 forest fires were raging across the province at midday Monday and eight were considered out of control.

The overall situation has improved over the weekend, but firefighters are concerned about Wemotaci, one of the hottest spots of the province.

A fire near the reserve – which was evacuated last week – grew vigorously Sunday and firefighters were forced to retreat because the smoke was too dense. "It was infernal, we’re up against a real monster," Sopfeu spokesman Marcel Trudel told reporters in La Tuque, noting the flames were as high as 30 metres.

The Sopfeu said their teams were able to return to Wemotaci Monday morning to battle the flames surrounding the reserve. "The fire didn’t do any damage but some preventive lines didn’t hold up and we’ll have to do extra work in those places," Trudel said.

He noted the winds have shifted and died down, giving a hand to the firefighters. The Sopfeu is also hoping the light rain forecasted for the region will provide some relief.

The majority of the fires are burning near Wemotaci and La Tuque, about 300 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

The Quebec provincial police asked Monday that cottage owners and people who fish and camp in the region evacuate.

"We don’t want people to wait until the last minute. We don’t know if we’ll be able to get everyone out by air if the situation becomes critical," said Surete du Quebec spokeswoman Eloise Cossette.

Some fires are also burning in the area of Parent, in the Mauricie, and in the Abitibi region.

Over the past week, firefighters have battled 118 fires in the province and managed to put out 66. With the help of teams from British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick, Maine and New Hampshire the Sopfeu currently has 1,300 firefighters working across Quebec.

The smoke from the fires has drifted hundreds of kilometres away, reaching Montreal, Quebec’s Eastern Townships and Ottawa Monday.

A layer of smoke enveloped the Montreal region Monday morning and Environment Canada issued a smoke warning for Laval, Vaudreuil, Soulanges Huntingdon, Richelieu Valley, Ste. Hyacinthe, Lachute, St. Jerome, Lanaudiere, Mauricie, Drummondville, Bois-Franc and the Eastern Townships.

The City of Montreal’s air quality monitoring stations indicated the worst readings were in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and areas of downtown, where readings were above 150. Fifty-one and above is considered bad air quality.

Smog especially affects asthmatic children and people with respiratory ailments or heart disease. It is, therefore, recommended that these individuals avoid intense physical activity outdoors until the smog warning is lifted.

In Ottawa, the fire department was kept busy responding to ‘multiple calls from across the city’ about the odour early Monday.

By Monday night, the winds are expected to change again to blow the smoke north and clear of the Montreal and Ottawa region.

With files from the Montreal Gazette and the Ottawa Citizen

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