Major Que. fires force evacuation, reinforcements on the way

QUEBEC – Firefighters battled Thursday a series of out-of-control fires in central and northern Quebec that forced the evacuation of an entire native reserve and called for reinforcements from other provinces.

Quebec’s forest fire protection agency, the Sopfeu, said 63 fires were raging across the province by Thursday evening and 15 were out of control. More than 29,000 hectares of forest have so far been destroyed.

The Abitibi region, in northern Quebec, and the Haute-Maurice region, located north of Trois-Rivieres, are the two provincial hot spots.

"The situation is pretty critical," said Sopfeu spokeswoman Eloise Richard.

The recent heat wave in Quebec has increased the risks of forest fires and lightning also sparked fires.

The forecast for hot and dry conditions for the next few days isn’t encouraging firefighters.

"We’ll have to wait and see, but the weather doesn’t seem to be on our side," Richard said.

The Sopfeu also noted that 28 new fires flared up Thursday, notably in the Saguenay-Lac St. Jean area and in northern Quebec.

The fire protection agency has 14 water bombers, 50 helicopters and more than 800 firefighters battling the flames across the province. It has requested reinforcements from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre and two water bombers from Manitoba were expected to arrive Thursday. Sopfeu was not immediately able to determine which provinces were responding to the call but said they were hopeful U.S. counterparts would join in the fight against the flames as well.

Richard said firefighters are working at securing villages and houses in the affected areas and preventing new fires from blazing out of control.

One of the biggest blazes – made of 12 out-of-control fires – in central Quebec forced the evacuation of more than 1,300 people from the Wemotaci First Nation reserve, located some 300 kilometres north of Trois-Rivieres.

The residents were taken by bus Wednesday night to nearby La Tuque and bunked down at the school or with friends, family or at the hotel.

"There’s room for everyone to sleep, that’s good news," said Transport Minister Julie Boulet speaking to reporters in La Tuque Thursday afternoon. "We’re here should other needs arise and we will support these people so their stay is the most comfortable possible, considering the circumstances."

The fire was still at the village’s boundaries Thursday and a thick cloud of smoke covered the region.

"There’s smoke over an area of 100 kilometres by 100 kilometres," said Jacques Raymond, spokesman for civil security in the Mauricie region.

The provincial police said Thursday fire damage in the Wemotaci Atikamekw reserve was limited to a home and a shed.

The evacuation order was still enforced and the road that leads to the village remained closed.

Native Affairs Minister Pierre Corbeil said the government will work on bringing back electricity to Wemotaci when residents are allowed to go back.

Authorities are also keeping their eyes on fires near the reserves of Obedjiwan, where about 70 residents were evacuated, and Manawan, as well as the village of Parent, all in central Quebec.

Late Thursday provincial police said a preventive evacuation of 300 people was taking place in Manawan, involving people with health or mobility problems and pregnant women.

They were bused to Joliette where they were to set up camp in a local arena.

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