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Forest fire forces evacuation of 500 homes in Chapais in northern Quebec

MONTREAL — Quebec's forest fire prevention agency said Thursday that two wildfires were burning out of control in the province, including one in northern Quebec that has led to the evacuation of about 500 homes.

A forest fire remained out of control in Chapais, a community of just over 1,500 in northern Quebec. On Wednesday evening, the community located east of Chibougamau announced that residents in the southern part of the town had to evacuate.

"That fire, just under 1,400 hectares, was declared yesterday, (and) because of conditions on the ground, weather conditions, it quickly became out of control," said Mélanie Morin, a spokeswoman for the prevention agency, known as SOPFEU.

"Water bombers are back on the scene today. As well, we have heavy machinery that are working to create a fireguard between the fire and the town of Chapais."

Chapais Mayor Isabelle Lessard told reporters no major damage was reported in the town but closer inspection will be required. She said the some evacuated residents were ordered to leave, while for others it was strongly recommended.

"Currently the fire has not been brought under control, but it has not progressed further, which is good news," Lessard told an afternoon briefing outside Chapais town hall. "We are talking about a fairly large area, but the SOPFEU teams and the Chapais firefighters, everyone is mobilized to control it as best as possible."

Lessard said a fire management team is expected to arrive in the afternoon and only then will authorities be able to provide a better idea when people can return home.

There are about a dozen active fires in the province, with the Chapais one and a 500-hectare blaze north of Sept-Îles, on Quebec's north shore, considered out of control. That fire was causing poor air quality in the city of just under 25,000.

On Thursday afternoon, the province's power utility said nearly 250,000 customers across the province had lost power due to the north shore fire.

The provincially owned utility said smoke and heat triggered protective mechanisms on the network and power was gradually being restored. By 4 p.m., the outage number had dropped to 217,000 customers.

Meanwhile authorities say the situation is improving in the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region, about 250 kilometres north of Quebec City, where two fires were declared under control and a third was contained.

The province's Natural Resources and Public Security departments issued a notice Thursday asking people to avoid travelling in the province's forests as much as possible due to the high flammability hazard.

This week, authorities issued a ban on fires in or near forests across the province.

Quebec's forest fire prevention agency said the high temperatures and dry conditions enveloping the province, coupled with little rain, has left much of the province at the highest level on its index of fire danger.

"We can say with quite a degree of certainty that all wildfires that we've experienced in the last week are human caused, as there was no lightning up until last night," Morin said. 

"Despite the fact that there was a fire ban, this just goes to show how tinder-dry things are, and the slightest spark will cause a wildfire."

Morin said dry lightning may occur throughout the province, which is also cause for concern as very little rain is forecast into next week.

"There's not a lot we can do about Mother Nature and lightning, but we're definitely asking the co-operation of the public to avoid all use of fire in or near the forest, and if possible, even avoid being in the forest throughout the weekend," Morin said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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