Massive wildfire threatens northern Quebec Cree community

The deputy chief of the Cree community of Eastmain in northern Quebec says a forest fire near there is gaining ground. It has already burned about 250,000 hectares of forest.

Parks Canada may use controlled burns to fight the fire near James Bay

The fire has burned about 250,000 hectares of forest near Eastmain, Que. (NASA)

The deputy chief of the Cree community of Eastmain in northern Quebec says a forest fire near there is gaining ground.

So far, the fire has destroyed some 250,000 hectares of land in the area.

The community of Eastmain lies on the south shore of the Eastmain River, at the mouth of James Bay in Quebec. The forest fire is roughly four kilometres northeast of the community.

The deputy chief of Eastmain, Johnny Tomatuk, said the smoke from the fire is so thick, water bombers are having difficulty flying over it.

Tomatuk said favorable winds are blowing the flames and the smoke away from the community for now, but he said the flames are rapid and a change in wind direction could be devastating.

Firefighters are now looking at their options.

The next possible scenario could be to fight fire with fire by using controlled burns. Tomatuk said that could prevent the flames from spreading and reaching the community.

He said it might be the only option left to stop the fire.      

Parks Canada is the government body which takes care of controlled burns. Tomatuk said officials for that agency are on their way to Eastmain to determine if that's the next move.

Melanie Morin speaks for the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu, a group that specializes in forest fire prevention in the province.

She said this tactic allows crews to put the fire out more easily.

"When the fire reaches the portion that has already been burned there is very little vegetation there and there will be very little intensity," she said.

Morin explained that wind speed and vegetation are taken into account to make sure a controlled burn doesn't become an uncontrolled forest fire.

Fire crews and controlled burn experts from Parks Canada are meeting in Eastmain to discuss their action plan.

Last week, part of the community of about 700 was evacuated. About 320 people, mostly the elderly, sick, children and pregnant women, were flown to Val d'Or, Que. About 200 people are still in the community, and the rest are on holidays elsewhere.

Chief Edward Gilpin said his community is thankful for all the help its receiving.

"But like everybody else, they want to go home one time or another," he said.