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Quebec north shore city declares state of emergency as forest fires multiply

Quebec Public Security Minister Francois Bonnardel speaks during a news conference on Thursday, April 6, 2023 at the legislature in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — A city on Quebec's north shore declared a state of emergency on Friday as forest fires raged in different parts of the province, forcing thousands from their homes.

Sept-Îles Mayor Steeve Beaupré said certain sectors of his city about 890 kilometres northeast of Montreal were ordered to evacuate by 4 p.m. Friday as a preventive measure, with an emergency shelter set up in nearby Port-Cartier.

The Uashat Mak Mani-utenam First Nation said the roughly 1,500 residents of the Innu community of Mani-Utenam outside Sept-Îles, have also been told to leave their homes. They will be taken to Pessamit, an Innu community southwest of Baie-Comeau.

Two fires are burning near Sept-Îles, which has a population of just over 25,000. One of those fires progressed quickly overnight, said Isabelle Gariepy, a spokeswoman for Quebec's forest fire prevention organization, known as SOPFEU.

Beaupré said the fire's rapid growth wasn't anticipated. "Last night, according to the latest information, it was not going in that direction, but the fire has progressed a lot," Beaupré said in justifying the evacuation order. "There could be a junction between the two fires that are currently active."

On Wednesday, another out-of-control forest fire in northern Quebec forced the evacuation of about 500 homes in Chapais, east of Chibougamau.

Chapais Mayor Isabelle Lessard said Friday would be decisive in determining whether residents could return home, and she warned that even without visible signs of fire, there can still be danger.

"It remains an invisible enemy," Lessard told a briefing on Friday. "We don't currently see the fire from the city, we don't see any smoke either, but ... it's still there, it's still big, it's still out of control."

Late Friday, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel confirmed on Twitter that he has asked Ottawa for Canadian Armed Forces assistance to deal with the forest fires in Quebec.

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair acknowledged the request and said Ottawa was working to identify the "appropriate federal resources."

Quebec has also sought firefighting help from other countries, notably the United States, Portugal and Mexico, said Natural Resources and Forestry Minister Maïté Blanchette Vézina.

About 400 firefighters with the province's forest fire prevention organization are deployed, and the province's civil security department is fully mobilized. 

According to SOPFEU, there were 119 active fires in the province as of Friday afternoon, a figure that has been continuously in flux due to the hot, dry temperatures enveloping the province.

Earlier, Bonnardel said about 20 fires have been deemed priorities to protect homes and Hydro-Québec infrastructure.

Bonnardel said about 10,000 people are affected by the evacuation order on Quebec's north shore and 1,000 in Chapais.

The province's Natural Resources and Public Security departments issued a notice Thursday asking people to avoid travelling in forests as much as possible due to the high fire risk. Earlier this week, authorities issued a ban on fires in or near forests across the province.

Premier François Legault on Friday urged people to follow the advice of authorities. "I'm asking all Quebecers not to go into forests, and if you're asked to evacuate to follow that guidance," he told reporters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly referred to Bill Blair as the public safety minister. In fact, he is minister of emergency preparedness.

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