Municipalities across Quebec on alert as wildfires rage across province

Another Quebec municipality was evacuated due to forest fires Friday evening. The 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon were called to leave their homes as a nearby blaze approached the community. 

Nearly twice as many fires in Quebec this year compared to 10-year average

A thick cloud of dark brown smoke hangs over two buildings.
The municipality of Lebel-sur-Lebel-sur-Quévillon in northern Quebec was evacuated Friday night, due to a growing wildfire nearby. (Submitted by Joelle Barrette)

More Quebec municipalities are receiving evacuation notices as forest fires worsen in the northern parts of the province.

Friday evening, the 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon were called to leave their homes as a nearby blaze approached the community. And Saturday morning, the 1,800 residents of Nation Anishnabe du Lac Simon in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region were asked to leave due to the toxicity of the smoke hanging over the community because of nearby fires.

Public Security Minister François Bonnardel said the last 48 hours have been worrisome for wildfires in the province, as they had grown in number from 117 to 138 and several municipalities in northern regions are on alert for possible evacuations notices. As of Saturday evening, the SOPFEU website lists 139 active fires across the province and over 182,000 affected hectares. One-hundred and one of those fires were deemed "out of control."

There have so far been 387 forest fires in Quebec this year, compared to a 10-year average of 197, according to SOPFEU.

In Lebel-sur-Quévillon, a town 800 kilometres north of Montreal, an evacuation alert deemed "extreme" in severity from Quebec's Public Security Ministry came in at 9:56 p.m., hours after a first alert was published at around 5 p.m. 

"We're quite preoccupied by the situation," said Stéphane Caron, a co-ordinator for SOPFEU, Quebec's wildfire management agency. "The force of the fire keeps moving forward."

The forest fire is situated about 30 kilometres north of the municipality in Quebec's Jamésie region and southwest of another fire, which prompted the evacuation of the small community of Chapais earlier this week. 

Isabelle Lessard, the mayor of Chapais, said the forest fire that prompted the drove 1,000 residents out earlier this week is no longer progressing and residents can start returning home on Saturday. 

"The fact that the fire hasn't grown shows us that the measures we put into place were effective despite our small teams," said Lessard in a news conference on Saturday.

Lac Simon Chief Lucien Wabanonik said that while smoke was the community's biggest concern, dryness in surrounding forests could cause fires to grow and get closer to residential areas. 

"Things are evolving quite quickly," said Wabanonik. "We have a team staying behind to prepare trenches" dug in the ground and used to stop forest fires in their tracks.

Air quality has also been a problem in Abitibi-Témiscamingue. The city of Val d'Or, 150 kilometres south of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, has recommended people remain indoors, shut windows and check on those who may be vulnerable.

A cloud of black smoke engulfed Lebel-sur-Quévillon Friday as residents left. Many said they weren't worried for their homes because of the large lake bordering the town, which stands between it and the forest fire to its north.

A line of cars on a highway is seen with an orange sign that says "Emergency measures" on the side of the road.
Lebel-sur-Quévillon residents head south on Highway 113 after an evacuation alert was issued Friday night. (Martin Guindon/Radio-Canada)

By 11 p.m. Friday, most of the town was nearly deserted. A long line of cars could be seen heading south on Highway 113 to Senneterre, about 90 kilometres down the road, where people were invited to gather at an arena for authorities to give them further instructions. 

Senneterre Mayor Nathalie-Ann Pelchat said authorities had warned her Lebel-sur-Quévillon would likely have to be evacuated Saturday, but that soon changed to Friday. 

Evacuees were asked to present themselves at the André-Dubé arena in Senneterre. From there, they could choose between staying with friends or family, or at the local high school, École secondaire La Concorde. 

"There's a lot of space and there is air conditioning. We're trying to offer them a cozy little nest," Pelchat said. 

As seen from a windshield dash.
The wildfire near Lebel-sur-Quévillon in northern Quebec caused thick black smoke tinged with red as residents evacuated Friday night. (Radio-Canada)

Céline Beaulieu-Deschênes and her husband, Yvan Deschênes, made it to Senneterre Friday night. 

"I was surprised by the alert, but then the smoke was quite intense. It felt safer to leave," said Beaulieu-Deschênes.

Guy Lafrenière, the mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, told Radio-Canada Saturday morning that there were still about 20 people in the town who had refused to leave. Otherwise, Lafrenière said, the evacuation had gone smoothly, considering it was conducted by volunteers going door to door informing people they had to leave.

Sept-Îles evacuations force 10,000 out

In Sept-Îles on Quebec's North Shore, another major fire has prompted 10,000 people from the area to leave their homes. Authorities were concerned the fire could merge with smaller ones nearby and continue to grow in size and strength.

Saturday, the city said the fire didn't gain much ground overnight but that officials are still on alert and watching the situation closely. 

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) would be deployed "to help support Quebec's response to the ongoing wildfires and to provide firefighting resources."

A CAF spokesperson told CBC News on Saturday night the Quebec deployment consists of 200 service members at the moment.

The sectors of Lac-Daigle, des Plages, Moisie and Maliotenam are all covered by evacuation orders, as well as the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam. The 1,500 residents of Mani-Utenam were invited to stay in Pessamit, another Innu community about 300 km west. 


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With files from Radio-Canada