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Quebec town evacuated while others return home as wildfire fight continues


MONTREAL — Another northern Quebec town was evacuated due to an out of control wildfire on Saturday as the federal government confirmed that Canadian Forces personnel would be deployed to help combat forest fires in the province.

About 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, about 620 kilometres northwest of Montreal, were the latest to receive a mandatory evacuation notice on Friday evening due to forest fires nearby.

Lebel-sur-Quévillon Mayor Guy Lafrenière said Saturday the fire continued to threaten the municipality even though its spread had slowed overnight. There was heavy smoke throughout the town and forest fire prevention teams were doing trenchwork in the area to protect it. Residents were relocated to Senneterre, about 90 kilometres south of the community.

In the North Shore community of Sept-Îles, where a state of emergency was declared Friday morning, an evacuation order for residents of certain sectors of town remained in place. It was the same story in the nearby Innu community of Mani-Utenam, where 1,500 residents belonging to the Uashat Mak Mani-utenam First Nation have been relocated.

The two wildfires threatening the area remained largely stable and did not progress much overnight. Sept-Îles Mayor Steeve Beaupré said no new evacuations were planned, but residents of one sector remained on alert. About 5,000 people were forced from their homes as a precaution in the city about 890 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

Meanwhile, members of the Anishinaabe community of Lac-Simon in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region also had to evacuate on Saturday. Community members relocated to Val-d'Or due to poor air quality in the community. Public health officials in the region declared a confinement as of 6 p.m. until 9 a.m., asking residents to stay indoors and keep windows closed.

Quebec forest fire prevention organization SOPFEU reports there are 134 active fires in the province, including about 20 that are priorities because they threaten residences or infrastructure.

"Our weather experts are announcing the same type of weather over the next few days," said Mélanie Morin, a spokeswoman for SOPFEU.

"There may be some rain coming in on Tuesday or Wednesday, that's still pretty far away, (so) we're taking it one day at a time, but that is when we may get a bit of a relief from Mother Nature."

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair confirmed Saturday the federal government had approved a request from Quebec seeking military assistance, and Canadian Forces troops will be providing firefighting resources and help with wildfire response planning and coordination.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's office said Premier Legault spoke to him on the phone Saturday and that Legault thanked Trudeau for the rapid deployment of the troops.

Trudeau also spoke to local leaders in some of the province’s most hard-hit communities.

About 100 soldiers were expected Saturday in the region, according to Employment Minister Kateri Champagne Jourdain, who is also the minister responsible for the Côte-Nord region. Another 100 soldiers were expected on Sunday, she told a briefing.

Meanwhile there was good news for the residents of Chapais, another northern Quebec town, where the local mayor said residents can return home later after being forced to evacuate on Wednesday evening.

Isabelle Lessard's announcement was met with applause from residents of the town about 715 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

"The fact that the fire has not gotten bigger also shows that what has been done (to stop spread) is effective," Lessard said, but added residents shouldn't let their guard down and must abide by provincial notices.

This week, the province asked people to stay out of forests and banned open fires in or near forests across the province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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