Fire evacuees flee northern Quebec communities to safety of Saguenay

Several municipalities in northern Quebec are on high alert as forest fires continue to burn across the province prompting others to issue evacuation notices.

Thousands of residents headed to Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean

A person holds the door open for someone carrying a duffle bag
Many evacuees from Chibougamau arrived in Saguenay in the early morning. They left one of the latest towns endangered by forest fires that have already forced 11,400 out of their homes. (Rémi Tremblay/Radio-Canada )

Jack Halliday knocked on doors until the early hours of the morning on Wednesday, informing people of the evacuation order in Chibougamau, Que., one of the latest towns endangered by forest fires. 

It was a long day for the 22-year-old, who is an intern with the town of Chibougamau. He volunteered to stay behind even while his family was driving off Tuesday night. 

Halliday says he knocked on doors until 3:30 a.m.

"We're asking them if they're aware of the fire," said Halliday. "We'd ask them what their plans were for the next few hours." 

"Everyone was very nervous. This was a first time experience for most people I'd say in Chibougamau, very nervous but also confused."

He says it felt odd not leaving with his parents when the evacuation order was first issued Tuesday evening, about an hour after the neighbouring Cree Nation of Oujé-Bougoumou began its own evacuation.

A lake overlooking mountains is obscured by smoke and haze
Jack Halliday says Monday was the worst day in Chibougamau in terms of air quality. He says there was ash and smoke in the air, which has since improved, but he can smell fire. (Jack Halliday )

"Seeing thousands of cars leave the town when I was heading the other way on the road when there's no one going my way, it was a funny strange feeling," said Halliday, who finally left town Wednesday afternoon. 

His father, Peter Halliday, says he felt some pangs of worry. 

"I want Chibougamau to be there when we get back, I want everything to go back to the way it was and I don't want anybody losing anything or anybody getting hurt," said Halliday. 

He said there was a little bit of panic in the air and two bottlenecks in the road out of the town that caused major traffic. 

Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr issued the notice on Facebook Tuesday evening around 8:15 p.m. directing 7,300 residents toward the arena at the municipality of Roberval, 250 kilometres away. Buses were provided for those without cars.

"Right now we have some time, that's why we decided to evacuate immediately," Cyr said Tuesday.

Red and orange skies above Chibougamau.
Forest fires burning northeast of Chibougamau, Que., prompted an evacuation notice affecting 7,300 people. (Submitted by Nancy Gervais)

Roberval welcomes evacuees

There were 700 beds set up at the Benoît-Lévesque sports centre in Roberval. 

Roberval mayor, Serge Bergeron, says evacuees started arriving at 4 a.m. after enduring hours of traffic. 

"A lot of people arrived here after seven or eight hours of driving. They were so tired, anxious, nervous," said Bergeron.

The mayor said some evacuees were in tears, concerned they would lose their homes and all their possessions to fire.

He says they have psychological support for evacuees and can welcome residents for up to five days if the fire is not controllable.

Within a few hours of Chibougamau announcing the evacuation, Roberval had the arena set up, beds, food and drinks available for residents.

"I am so proud of my team," said Bergeron. "Each city much have an emergency plan and it was a good occasion for us to try our emergency plan. It's a good example of solidarity."

As of Wednesday morning 80 per cent of Chibougamau's population had left, and there are still beds available at the sports centre in Roberval, Cyr told Quebec AM's Julia Caron. Several evacuees have been able to stay with friends or family rather than at the arena.

emergency beds in Benoît-Lévesque sports centre's arena.
Around 700 beds were set up in the Benoît-Lévesque sports centre in Roberval, Que. (Louis Martineau/Radio-Canada)

'We had to rush and scramble'

In Oujé-Bougoumou, the evacuation notice affected around 800 people who headed to the Cégep in Chicoutimi, about 400 kilometres away, past Roberval.

Gaston Cooper, an Oujé-Bougamou resident who is now in Chicoutimi, began to notice the grey haze over the town take on an orange glow this week.

WATCH | Evacuees try to make the best of things in Chicoutimi:

The latest from the scene of the northern Quebec forest fires

4 months ago
Duration 2:22
CBC's Kwabena Oduro reports on the latest from Chicoutimi, Que.

Cooper and his family thought they'd have to leave early Wednesday morning. The evacuation order came early, as they were having dinner Tuesday. It was time to go. 

"We had to rush and scramble, pick up our belongings, our pets. We started picking up people who didn't have rides," said Cooper.

In three vehicles laden with people, cats and the few belongings they could bring with them, they joined a procession of cars heading south along the only highway out of town. 

It was the first time his wife and son had to leave their home because of fires, but Cooper had seen it before, during a violent fire season in the late 1980s. 

"That one was hectic. This one was more well-organized but it's still very hectic at times because we didn't really have much time to really pack everything," said Cooper.

According to the Quebec forest fire agency SOPFEU, there are two fires burning 20 kilometres away from the area near Chibougamau, covering 50,000 and 12,500 hectares.

In total there are 148 fires burning across Quebec, most of them out of control. 

Mistissini chief says they are safe, despite premier pointing to evacuation

During a news conference Wednesday, Premier François Legault said that the Cree Nation of Mistissini, northeast of Chibougamau, will also evacuate. 

But Chief Michael Petawabano of Mistissini said the community is still secure. 

"We want to reassure you we are safe here in the community," said Petawabano. 

"I understand Legault went on, and I just told everyone in Cree, Legault does not run our community, the community is run by leadership here, we make decisions here and we are going to inform you."

Surrounding communities on high alert

The fires have already forced 11,400 to leave their homes, according to Legault.

Another Cree nation, that of Waswanipi, has begun moving some people out, Chief Irene Neeposh announced Wednesday in a Facebook Live. She asked that people with long-term respiratory issues, pre-dialysis patients, cardiac patients and children with special needs, among other groups, take their medication with them and leave the community for Quebec City.

"I know we've all gotten ready so I'm really happy for that, that we're somewhat expecting it," said Neeposh. 

She asked that those leaving meet at a checkpoint at the old fire hall near the youth centre to give their name and destination. 

Those leaving Waswanipi for Quebec City will have to drive through the municipality of Chapais. 

The mayor for Chapais, Isabelle Lessard, has already alerted residents about this increase in traffic. However, she said that there is no notice of evacuation for Chapais. 

Lessard asks that anyone leaving voluntarily fill out a form available on its website and post it on their door so Sûreté du Québec can be aware in case a mandatory evacuation is ordered later. 

WATCH | Cree Chief Michael Petawabano explains what's happening in Mistissini: 

Update on the situation in the Cree Nation of Mistissini

4 months ago
Duration 3:48
Chief Michael Petawabano says leadership is monitoring the fires, but the community is safe for the time being.


Cassandra Yanez-Leyton is a journalist for CBC News based in Montreal. You can email her story ideas at

with files from Lauren McCallum, Matthew Lapierre and Radio-Canada