Thousands of Quebecers who were forced from their towns by out-of-control wildfires started to return home on Monday, as the province’s public security minister praised the work of firefighters in saving lives and property.
François Bonnardel told reporters that while the fight to contain wildfires across the province was far from over, the government had been able to meet its primary objective of safeguarding lives, residences and critical infrastructure.
“To date, we have won the fight,” Bonnardel told reporters at a news conference in the hard-hit Abitibi-Témiscamingue region, in western Quebec.
“It has not been easy for people, but …. there are no injuries, there are no deaths, there isn’t a single primary residence in Quebec that has burned down.”
Bonnardel said the biggest concerns were the fires threatening northwestern towns, including Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Normétal, where firefighters managed on Sunday to contain a blaze that had come within 500 metres of the community. He said the weather forecast for the next few days called for rain and favourable winds, adding that he hoped to be able to announce good news for those areas soon.
Earlier in the day, Premier François Legault told reporters that the improving fire situation in the province allowed evacuation orders to be lifted for thousands of people who had been out of their homes since last week.
Those returning home on Monday included the approximately 7,500 residents of Chibougamau, Que., located 500 kilometres northwest of Quebec City. Legault told reporters in Saguenay, Que., that residents of several Indigenous communities were also expected to start returning home, including Lac-Simon, Oujé-Bougoumou, Waswanipi, Obedjiwan and Lac-Barrière.
In Chibougamau, a first convoy of residents was escorted into town by provincial police officers shortly after the road to the city reopened at around 8 a.m. About 3,000 people had returned by 3:30 p.m., said Mayor Manon Cyr, who added that the process was going smoothly.
Cyr said grocery stores should be fully restocked by Tuesday, but she added that hospitals may not be offering a full range of care. She also expressed frustration toward people who weren’t following a provincially imposed ban on all activities in the woods.
“You see the heat, you see the fires, there’s smoke,” she told reporters. “It doesn’t take a master’s degree in forest fires to understand that it’s not the time to come fishing.”
Legault said that by the end of Monday, fewer than 4,000 people would still be unable to return home, down from a peak of more than 13,500 on Friday.
Those included the residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Normétal, where Bonnardel said there were still “concerns” that must be addressed before people could return, including the proximity of the flames to the Nordic Kraft pulp mill, in Lebel-sur-Quévillon. Evacuation orders also remained for the nearby towns of Beaucanton, Val-Paradis and St-Lambert.
Legault said there were more than 1,200 people fighting fires across the province, including reinforcements from New Brunswick and France. Another 100 firefighters from the United States were expected to arrive in the coming days along with more than 200 from Portugal and Spain.
“I am thanking President of the United States Joe Biden (POTUS) and the American people for their aid!” Legault tweeted Monday afternoon.
He said 100 firefighters and a fire management team would arrive Tuesday and Wednesday. A team of 14 forest firefighters from New England were also in Maniwaki, Que., 130 kilometres north of Ottawa, with more arriving this week, he said.
The province’s forest fire service — SOPFEU — said the arrival of reinforcements has allowed firefighters to fight the blazes more aggressively. However, experts have warned that shifts in the wind or weather could once again raise the danger level.
Environment Canada meteorologist Gerald Cheng said some rain was expected in the areas affected by fires, but “unfortunately, this rain could be accompanied by lightning,” which could cause new fires.
Quebec has been having a record wildfire season, with 449 fires to date, including 130 burning as of Monday.
—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press