As forest fires ravaged large areas of southern Eeyou Istchee in early June, Ouje-Bougoumou was completely evacuated and Waswanipi was relocating its most vulnerable people. As of June 8, 137 fires were active across the province, most out of control, down from 149 the previous day as cooler weather and firefighting reinforcements began taming some of the blazes.
After fires breached a preventative barrier and was just 17 km away, Ouje-Bougoumou and Chibougamau residents were ordered to evacuate June 6. Buses transported people 400 km southeast to the Cégep de Chicoutimi, while vehicles lined the only highway towards Lac Saint-Jean. Some headed instead to Mistissini.
Forest fire protection organization SOPFEU was using aerial tankers to fight the fire, which was moving west of the community. He said forecasts that winds were expected to shift to come from the south would be helpful to their efforts.
“SOPFEU’s plan is to burn some of the forest so there will be no fuel for the fire when the wind direction changes,” said Ouje-Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum June 8. “These efforts, combined with the impact of the swampy area on the fire and our protective barrier on the east side of the community may all prove to be effective.”
The barrier perimeter on the east side of the community was 40 metres wide. Residents were advised not to return home as the heavy smoke caused by the water bombers is very hazardous to health. Local police force Lieutenant Robert Mianscum said EEPF officers had evacuated remaining people and set up roadblocks and patrols to ensure safety.
On June 7, Waswanipi began relocating vulnerable people to Quebec City’s ExpoCité convention centre in a “pre-evacuation” phase, including those with chronic illness, infants and pregnant women. Chief Irene Neeposh advised residents to prepare an evacuation bag, keep their cars gassed up and plan their route to safety.
Nearly 300 Waswanipi residents had been evacuated as of June 8. Other evacuations were happening in several communities, including Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Normetal and parts of Val-d’Or. Many across the province were voluntarily leaving their homes because of heavy smoke in the air.
Mistissini Chief Michael Petawabano reassured residents that their community was safe but recommended only using essential power as the primary line into the community was damaged in the fire. Electricity in the community was going on and off throughout June 7.
“Conserve your gas, walk when it’s not smoky,” urged Petawabano. “We are asking people not to consume alcohol, consider the essential workers. Essential services, food and gas are available. They will not be blocked from entering the community.”
The Cree Nation Government had earlier issued a travel advisory warning, recommending travel to bush camps be avoided as the shifting winds could quickly change the status of a fire. It advised people to be alert to local communications and follow instructions provided by public safety services.
“I was worried about my grandmother because she was in the bush and there was a lot of smoke,” Raven Icebound Lord told the Nation. As her mother had already evacuated with a full carload, Icebound Lord called her uncle to check on her, who travelled from Mistissini to pick her up in Waswanipi on the way to Lac Saint-Jean.
The unprecedented extent of wildfires across Quebec had consumed over 638,000 hectares as of June 8 with winds carrying hazardous smoke to Montreal and cities throughout the northeastern United States. After suffering its worst air-quality readings on record, New York City provided a million free masks to residents.
“We recommend for people going outdoors to wear an N-95 mask like we had for Covid,” said Dr. Catherine Dickson, a public health physician with the Cree Health Board. “These are designed to filter particles from the smoke out. We’re looking to identify public buildings for setting up clean air shelters.”
Dickson explained that particles from the smoke can get into the lungs, especially for people with other health conditions, making your heart work faster to keep the oxygen exchanging in the body. The stress caused by the uncertainty was also a concern for mental health.
While rainy conditions began reducing the state of emergency in eastern Quebec on June 7, northern Quebec remained dry with no rain forecast until June 12. As firefighting resources arrived from as far away as Portugal, Mexico and Spain, officials said no other evacuations are planned in the short term and it’s too soon to say when people may return home.
by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter