Crews continue to battle Chute-des-Passes wildfire as dozens of forest fires burn across Quebec
With fire bans in place for many parts of the province, officials warn against Saint-Jean-Baptiste fireworks
The Chute-des-Passes forest fire, still burning out of control, has reached the chalet that's been in Steve Ratthé's family for 27 years, and he doesn't know whether the chalet is still standing.
According to Quebec's forest fire prevention agency, SOPFEU, by midday Tuesday, the fire raging north of Lac Saint-Jean in the Saguenay region was burning over about 62,000 hectares — or an area the size of the island of Montreal, plus about half of Laval.
Ratthé has been closely monitoring SOPFEU's fire maps to keep an eye on his chalet, which stood right across the lake from the fire.
"Every five minutes there is a change on the maps," Ratthé told Radio-Canada. "Until we see it, we won't know."
He left the chalet June 14 and doesn't know what he will find once he's allowed to return.
"Everything my dad and I have accumulated in the last 27 years is on site," he said.
The fire risk is listed as extreme for most of southern Quebec.
While there are currently 35 active fires in the province — a jump from Monday — the greatest concern is the Chute-des-Passes fire.
"We cannot stop its progression at the moment," said SOPFEU spokesperson Mélanie Morin. "However, the activity is much diminished as compared to earlier days, because of a bit of rain that came through and higher humidity that was in the area."
SOPFEU had estimated the size of the fire at 72,000 hectares Monday, but Morin said they were able to better map the fire Tuesday, as smoke abated.
Officials do not know how much damage the fire has caused, and considering its size, Morin said it will likely take several weeks to extinguish.
Crews and water bombers from Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta have joined Quebec forest firefighters in northern Quebec.
Other chalet owners keep watch
France Fillion told Radio-Canada she's watched as water bombers dropped onto the lake to refill, right in front of her chalet.
Fillion is about three kilometres from a smaller fire that started yesterday across the lake from her, some 40 kilometres from the Chute-des-Passes fire.
She told Radio-Canada she still feels safe from the larger forest fire, but that any change in weather or wind could quickly push the flames in her direction.
Fillion is allowed to stay put for now, but if she leaves, she won't be allowed to return.
"Yes, we're worried, but we don't have a choice, at a certain point we have to get groceries and other supplies," she said.
She, too, worries about the possibility of losing her chalet.
"It would be heartbreaking," she said.
Quebecer builds fireproof chalet
Amidst the flames in Chute-des-Passes is the chalet Frédéric Waltzing and his family built specifically to withstand forest fires.
Photos from cameras on Waltzing's property show an encroaching wall of flames while the chalet stands undisturbed.
Waltzing and his father, both former forest firefighters, built the place with his brother and brothers-in-law.
"The topography, the vegetation, and the general area told us we were very exposed, so we decided to modify a chalet we'd purchased to resist forest fires," Waltzing said.
He added the chalet is also built to protect the nearby forest from any fires that may happen at the chalet itself.
The roof and walls are made of sheet metal. At-risk trees, grass and foliage were removed from the area surrounding the chalet, and any combustible materials and chopped wood is kept further away from the structure.
"We had to sacrifice the esthetic a little bit, but that's the choice we made," Waltzing said.
Waltzing has been monitoring the temperature and collecting other data from the chalet remotely and said he's confident the place will hold. He said he anticipates some damage, but at least they won't be starting from zero.
"There are people for whom it'll be much sadder than for us," he said.
SOPFEU is recommending Quebecers forego fireworks in celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day due to the fire risks in many parts of the province, and there is a ban on all campfires right across the province.
With files from Radio-Canada and Joshua Grant