POLITICS

Residents of northern Quebec awaiting help with forest fires

07/05/2013 01:08 EDT | Updated 09/04/2013 05:12 EDT
UNDATED, - Residents might soon begin returning home in one of the remote communities threatened by forest fires that continue to rip through northern Quebec.

Winds Friday were pushing flames away from Eastmain — which has been the most severely affected of five communities near the fires, and from which hundreds of residents have been forced to flee.

Left to burn on their own over the past month, the fires have charred about 400,000 hectares of forest; triggered power failures around the province; caused evacuations in the North; and hampered shipments of food to village grocery stores.

Premier Pauline Marois held a 7 p.m. news conference to provide updates, after her government had been criticized in some media for the pace of its reaction.

Marois said there was no fear for people's safety. Teams from New Brunswick and Maine are helping to respond to the fires, she said.

And while the power grid was apparently more stable Friday than the previous day she said that, if the situation worsens, there could be more short-term blackouts like the ones that hit Montreal this week.

To date, the greatest impact has been felt around James Bay — where the community of Eastmain and an area gold-mine project have seen evacuations in recent days.

A spokesman for the aboriginal community said he expects people to begin returning home this weekend.

"A plan is already put in place to bring the evacuees home," deputy chief Johnny Tomatuk said Friday.

"The fire has already moved on and I can say the coast is clear."

About 300 people, about one-third of the town, were forced to leave the Cree community, which is 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal. They have been staying in Val d'Or.

The fires came to within four kilometres of Eastmain.

The main highway to James Bay was also closed. The closure meant food and other supplies could not be shipped into the area.

The trouble isn't over yet.

John Boudrias, who is with the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association, said Friday that several communities could run into food shortages in the coming days.

"It's a matter of days before they're going to have to change their strategy for food," he said in an interview from nearby Chibougamau.

Boudrias pointed out that four of the communities, along the coast of James Bay, have air strips so supplies can be flown in if necessary.

But the community of Nemaska is further inland, he said, and the flames have moved in its direction.

Crews from the SOPFEU, the provincial fire-fire protection service, had been working to protect Eastmain during the past week.

The operation involved six helicopters with water buckets and about 70 people.

SOPFEU has no jurisdiction above the 51st parallel. So it has been protecting people and property — but not trees.

Quebec Natural Resources Minister Martine Ouellet called it an unprecedented situation.

"It's evolving from hour to hour and evaluations are being done by the communities and civil protection is involved," she said in an interview.

The fires are being blamed on the driest summer in 40 years around James Bay, the hub of the province's hydro production.

Three major forest fires are being monitored — including the biggest one, which has raged at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour.

Goldcorp said in a news release that it's begun evacuating employees from its Eleonore gold-mining project. A fire with prevailing winds is about 100 kilometres away and advancing toward the site.

Satellite images show smoke over a sizeable chunk of the northwestern part of the province. Some of the smoke could even be detected this week hundreds of kilometres away, in Montreal.

The fires are being blamed for playing havoc with hydro transmission lines, which has caused numerous blackouts in the province — including a rush-hour shutdown of the Montreal metro system earlier this week.

Ouellet said she was confident that Hydro-Quebec had control of its equipment, but added that it's difficult to predict when the fires will end.