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Forest fires that ravaged Eeyou Istchee provide learning opportunities 

BY Patrick Quinn Jul 6, 2023

As improving weather conditions and international firefighting reinforcements slowed the spread of forest fires in northern Quebec, evacuated residents of Ouje-Bougoumou and Chibougamau were happy to begin returning home June 12. 

“The combination of SOPFEU’s tireless work together with the effectiveness of the swampy area to our northeast, our wide protective perimeter around the community, changing wind conditions, and a bit of rain have all significantly slowed the fire,” Ouje-Bougoumou Chief Curtis Bosum announced the previous day. 

With strong winds carrying a fire from Mistissini’s outskirts swiftly towards Ouje-Bougoumou on June 6, the province’s forest fire protection agency recommended an immediate evacuation of the community. More than 200 people with heightened medical issues filled three motor coaches in a quick move to a location with better air. 

“You could really smell smoke in the air and the sky started turning orange, like an apocalyptic movie,” Deputy Chief Lance Cooper told the Nation. “As quick and crazy as it was, it went smoothly. That’s something that we’ve never seen. We’re finally home, grateful our community is still here.”

Most residents had no more than five hours to pack up and leave that Tuesday evening, with many travelling all night to the Cégep de Chicoutimi about 400 km away on the only road still open. Community workers made the rounds to ensure everyone made it out safely while the local clinic transported necessary medications and supplies to provide evacuees with essential services.  

The Cégep and the City of Saguenay were praised for their generous hospitality, making the evacuation as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. In addition to meals and sleeping cots, local organizations and individuals offered support like babysitting. Amidst an international media circus, Cooper had an audience with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“I told him straight out when you and my people go to sleep tonight, our land is still on fire,” said Cooper. “We rely on our land for our life, culture and traditions. I understand they’re focusing on human life, but they’ve got to take account of the wildlife.”

Waswanipi was also badly affected by the wildfire smoke and moved to relocate its most vulnerable members to Quebec City in a “pre-evacuation” phase on June 7. While Mistissini’s power and land lines were briefly interrupted by the blazes, close coordination with leadership from different entities determined an evacuation wasn’t necessary. 

“The Canadian Armed Forces has a coordination centre in Mistissini to protect Chibougamau, Chapais and Ouje-Bougoumou,” said Jason Coonishish, the Cree Health Board’s coordinator of emergency services. “That fire 334 already reached km 80 of the Route du Nord so there are many camps that burned down.”

With Chibougamau’s hospital temporarily closed and vulnerable residents being evacuated from several communities, the Cree Health Board struggled to secure sufficient beds in Montreal during the busy tourism season. Working with the city, it managed to keep many dialysis patients together at Hôtel-Dieu, where recent renovations ensure service continuity.

Wildfires have raged in Eeyou Istchee since early June, when a fire close to Chisasibi was contained to swamplands. Sections of forest were later cleared to make fire breaks outside Wemindji and Mistissini. Emergency teams created during the Covid pandemic were reactivated, with each community’s public safety officer (PSO) coordinating decisions with other organizations and Cree entities.

Fires crossed the Route du Nord, which remained closed until further notice. At press time the 113 was closed from Waswanipi to Senneterre and the 167 was closed north of Perch. Hundreds of kilometres of Trans-Taiga Road were impacted as firefighters worked to protect Hydro-Québec infrastructure. 

“It’s advised at this time not to go into forestry roads and the forest,” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “SOPFEU is not able to carry out activities if people are in those spaces. We have issued a no open fire ban and are thinking of moving that to a zero fire ban because the forest is extremely dry.” 

Northern Quebec continues to be exposed to high concentrations of fine smoke particles, which can quickly shift with the wind. On one smoky day, Nemaska enacted preventative measures and distributed N95 masks, which are now available in each community. Most communities have purple air sensors to help map the region’s air quality data.

While cyclical forest fires were once important for maintaining healthy forest ecology, climate change has created more dangerous conditions. While the planet has warmed by an average of one degree, scientists estimate the temperature rise is closer to 2-to-4 degrees in northern latitudes, causing more incidents extreme weather.

This year’s particularly dry season created the perfect recipe for fires caused by lightning or humans – most commonly cigarettes tossed from car windows or open fires not properly managed. 

Emphasizing that such blazes are a learning opportunity, the Eeyou Marine Region Wildlife Board (EMRWB) is calling on Cree to submit their observations and traditional knowledge about how fires can impact wildlife and habitat, both positively and negatively in the short and long term.

“A large number of fires reoccurring within a short time is not natural, and the landscape and local wildlife populations may eventually not be able to adapt to this pace,” said Angela Coxon, EMWRB director of wildlife management. “Most wildlife can flee in time, but slow-moving animals cannot escape a fast-moving forest fire.”

Although wildlife impacts are not yet known, Coxon suggested the flames could be especially disastrous for nesting songbirds and amphibians that require a very specific habitat. Fire-suppressing foam can be toxic to fish and amphibians, and block oxygen on water surfaces. Spawning fish will be impacted by the ash, debris and loss of shade-bearing riverside trees. 

On the plus side, fires can spur smaller vegetation growth that provide food for species like moose and black bears. Species like woodpeckers and nighthawks thrive with easier access to insects. However, this is small consolation for the numerous Cree who live largely in the bush.

“All these damages to what was once a flourishing forest will have an everlasting impact to many of us land users,” lamented tallyman Allan Saganash. “Some Waswanipi traplines have been severely burnt by these raging fires and will not be productive for several years. Hold back the tears and let’s hope a fire of this size doesn’t happen again.”

by Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.