Raging fires in northern Quebec isolate Eastmain, close mine

More than a dozen forest fires are raging in northern Quebec, including one just four kilometres from the Cree community of Eastmain, which damaged a major hydro line Wednesday.

Civil protection authorities prepare 'Plan B' in case more evacuations required

Maxime Duperré, traveling in a truck near Nemiscau, took this video of the fire burning over 25,000 hectares 40 kms. from the Cree community. (Maxime Duperré/Youtube)

More than a dozen forest fires are raging in northern Quebec, including one just four kilometres northeast of the Cree community of Eastmain.

Quebec's forest fire protection agency, la Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU), said the fire had spread over 257,000 hectares when last surveyed, although today it is likely closer to 300,000 hectares.

"The winds at the moment are in the community's favour," said Mélanie Morin, a spokeswoman for SOPFEU. "The winds are blowing away from the community and heading eastward."

The Cree Board of Health and Social Services issued a news alert Thursday afternoon, saying preventive controlled-burning is protecting the village of Eastmain, and the hydro line is operational.

Goldcorp shut down its Éléonore mining project in the region, as prevailing winds pushed the fire — still about 100 kilometres away — in the direction of the mine site.

The head of civil protection for Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Northern Quebec, Jacques Viger, said about 800 employees were ordered to leave the mine site.

He said non-essential Hydro-Québec crews have also been pulled off their work sites, and a rest stop at Kilometre 321 of the James Bay road between Radisson and Matagami has also been closed.

"There are a lot of people evacuated either to Radisson or to Val d'Or," said Viger.

Late last week, some 275 elderly and infirm people, as well as those with respiratory problems, were evacuated from Eastmain and are already in Val d'Or.  Viger said between 400 and 500 people remain in the Cree community, with no passable road out due to smoke from the fire.

"If the wind changes direction we may have to evacuate Cree villages in the territory," Viger said. "We are starting to put in place a Plan B, to transport people by plane, as we can still get into all the communities by plane."

Blackouts for a 2nd day

For a second straight day, damage to major transmission lines from the fires caused widespread blackouts elsewhere in Quebec.

Half a million Hydro-Québec customers were without power at the peak of Thursday's outages, which began at around 5 p.m.

Hydro-Québec said most had their power restored by 7 p.m., and the utility had the three transmission lines affected up and running again by 7:30 p.m.

On Wednesday, damage to the hydro line caused a major power failure that affected metro service in Montreal and cut off power at LaRonde, the amusement park on Île Ste-Hélène.

"A major line, a major transmission line far up north basically went off line," Hydro-Québec's chief executive officer, Thierry Vandal, explained early Thursday. "That has a cascading affect on a number of lines."

La Société de développement de la Baie-James, the agency in charge of roads in that part of the province, yesterday closed a large portion of the James Bay highway because of the fire, as well as side roads.

A second major fire is burning 40 kilometres east of Nemiscau, another Cree community southeast of Eastmain.

Morin said that fire, covering some 25,000 hectares when last surveyed, is so far not affecting the community because the prevailing winds are away from the village.

SOPFEU has posted an extreme danger alert for several regions of the province — essentially everything north of the 49th parallel.

"Contrary to the southern portion of the province, where we have lots of humidity and rain on and off throughout most of the summer, the nordic portion of the province has had very little rain and is very dry," Morin said. "The fire index is at 'extreme,' which means the tiniest spark could set off a major forest fire."

There is a ban on all open-air fires in the affected regions.