Evacuations and anxiety as wildfires rage near Cree communities in Quebec

From thick smoke to a complete evacuation, several Cree communities in northern Quebec are dealing with impacts of the wildfires raging in the region. 

Oujé-Bougoumou evacuates, Waswanipi getting out vulnerable people, Mistissini says situation is stable

A fire truck surrounded by an orange, smoke filled sky at dusk drives on a gravel road.
A fire truck at the Oujé-Bougoumou access road. Fires have forced the evacuation of the Cree community in northern Quebec. Several other Cree communities are also dealing with impacts of wildfires raging in the region. (submitted by Jeff MacNeill)

From thick smoke to a complete evacuation, several Cree communities in northern Quebec are dealing with impacts of the wildfires raging in the region. 

On Tuesday night, the small inland community of Oujé-Bougoumou, located about 750 kilometres north of Montreal, was completely evacuated. The community has about 800 residents. 

"The fire has breached the barrier and the fire is coming quicker than expected," said Chief Curtis Bosum, in a video on social media Tuesday evening. 

Reached Wenesday morning, Lance Cooper, the community's deputy chief, said the fire was 17 kilometres away from Oujé-Bougoumou and moving quickly.

Man in suit.
Curtis Bosum is the chief of the Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou. (Oujé-Bougoumou)

He added that SOPFEU, the province's fire prevention agency, has sent five water bombers and ground crew to widen the barrier around Oujé-Bougoumou.

"We have also heard this morning that some members are not complying with the evacuation order," said Cooper. 

"The fire is moving aggressively, and it's still moving quickly, headed towards Oujé-Bougoumou. This has created a lot of fear and anxiety in the community. 

"Anyone who is left is encouraged to evacuate and get to a safe location." 

Buses were organized to transport people to the Cégep de Chicoutimi, located about 400 kilometres to the southeast. Late into the night on Tuesday there was a long line of cars and trucks heading out of Oujé-Bougoumou and Chibougamau, a nearby non-Cree town of more than 7,500 which was also evacuated Tuesday night.

Two-hour trip took 6 hours

Former Grand Chief Abel Bosum was returning to Oujé-Bougoumou from down south when he first heard about the fire near his community. He is currently in Chicoutimi. 

A nightime shot of a long line of cars leaving Chibougaumau and Oujé Bougoumou area.
A long line of vehicles leaving Chibougaumau, Que., on Tuesday, heading southeast to Chicoutimi, Que. A trip that usually takes 2 hours took 6 hours. (submitted by Sylvain Marcil)

"There is only one highway from Chibougamau to Lac St. Jean. People had to be very careful. Some people left with campers. What normally takes two hours ... some reported taking about six hours. Some were driving all night," said Abel, adding he was thankful for the work of the Sûreté du Québec.

Oujé-Bougoumou was recognized in 1995 by the United Nations as one of fifty outstanding examples of community development. It is also home to the Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute, which is a museum, archives centre, library, teaching centre and cultural hub.

"I can only hope that the natural terrain, the swampy areas can be a buffer for the community, and hope that the wind changes direction and hope for rain. We are just holding on tight. The important thing is that people are out of the community," said Abel. 

Waswanipi moves to get vulnerable people out

Waswanipi, Que., is an inland Cree community badly affected by the smoke from the wildfires. 

Chief Irene Neeposh announced around noon on Wednesday via Facebook Waswanipi was beginning to relocate vulnerable people, such as those with chronic illness, infants, pregnant women and others, to Quebec City. She called it a "pre-evacuation" phase.

"Go check on people you might know that have these conditions and let them know about this message. Remain calm and let's try to get things flowing," said Neeposh, promising to give more information as the day progresses. 

An aerial shot of Waswanipi covered by wildfire smoke.
An aerial shot of a smoky Waswanipi, Que. That Cree community is carrying out a partial evacuation on Wednesday afternoon, focused on vulnerable people. (Submitted Tyron Dixon and Joni Blacksmith)

In nearby Mistissini, which is about an hour and 45 minute drive to the northeast of Oujé-Bougoumou, residents reacted with worry and concern to news of the evacuation in Oujé-Bougoumou and Chibougamau.

On Wednesday afternoon, Mistissini Chief Michael Petawabano went on Facebook to reassure residents. 

"I know it's hard sometimes. Panic may set in. There are a lot of reports going out on social media. We want to reassure you. We are safe here in the community," said Petawabano, after Quebec's premier announced at a news conference that Mistissini was preparing to evacuate. 

A headshot of a Cree man looking at the camera
Michael Petawabano is the Chief of Mistissini, one of the larger Cree communities in Quebec with a population of about 5,000 people. (submitted by Cree Nation of Mistissini)

"[Premier François] Legault does not run our community. The community is run by leadership here. We are continuing to monitor the situation," said Petawabano. He added that leaders are asking residents to conserve power as the primary line into the community has been damaged in the fire. 

Nick Wapachee is a Mistissini resident with a wife and a young son. He says it was very difficult on Tuesday night and there were many people who were feeling trapped and anxious. 

"I've seen a lot of people panicking and gassing up their cars. It was pretty chaotic," he told CBC News, adding that the chief's message really helped ease people's fears. 

"We haven't slept good and my friends said the same. Some stayed up all night because they were waiting for the call for evacuation. Today seems a little hopeful."

The power in Mistissini was also going on and off for several hours earlier on Wednesday. 

Maïté Blanchette Vézina is the provincial minister of natural resources and forests. In an interview on Tuesday afternoon with Radio-Canada, she said that firefighting resources were going to be prioritized in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, and that Mistissini was a particular priority. 

"In northern Quebec there are a few fires that we are following particularly closely, in the region of Mistissini, among others," said Blanchette Vézina, adding that rain on the north shore near Sept-Iles has allowed a reallocation of resources into Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Mistissini regions. 

Petawabano assured Mistissini residents that SOPFEU is prioritizing keeping the main highway out of Mistissini, Highway 167, open in the southbound direction.

"SOPFEU is going to make sure that this path is open," said Petawabano. 


Susan Bell has worked with CBC News since 1997 as a journalist, writer-broadcaster, radio host and producer. She has been with CBC North since 2009, most recently as a digital producer with the Cree unit in Montreal.

With files from Jaime Little/Radio-Canada