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Quebec wildfire smoke causes widespread smog, grounds some water bombers

Heavy rain and some wind pending, which should allow operations to resume ‘almost normally’
The skyline of Montreal is obscured by a haze of smog, Sunday, June 25, 2023. Smoke from the wildfires burning across northern Quebec is grounding the province’s water bombers and causing widespread smog warnings futher south. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Smoke continued to billow from wildfires burning across northern Quebec on Monday, grounding water bombers and causing widespread smog warnings farther south.

There were 114 fires burning across the province as of Monday morning, including 29 considered out of control, according to a spokesman for the province’s forest fire prevention agency.

Nicolas Vigneault said the heavy smoke has reduced visibility, making it impossible for some water bombers and helicopters to take off.

“We do as (many) operations as we can in the field with the firefighters, and in the air with the planes and helicopters,” he said. “But our priority is the security of everybody, and the smoke is a challenge right now, and it’s been a challenge over the last two or three days.”

However, he said heavy rain and some wind is expected in the most affected parts of the province in the coming days, which should allow operations to resume “almost normally.”

While no towns are under immediate risk of burning, the fires have forced thousands of Quebecers from their homes. That includes the 2,000 residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, parts of Val-d’Or and Senneterre, and some Indigenous communities.

The Cree Nation of Mistissini announced late Saturday that it was asking all remaining community members to evacuate the area due to a fire threatening nearby Route 167.

“The dryness index is 100, the highest that can be recorded, and the intensity of the fire is really high,” read one of a series of posts on the community’s Facebook page.

Authorities noted that the forest fire agency was unable to get images of the fire due to low visibility, which made it hard to track its progress. A plan was in the works to protect the community by widening fire breaks, bringing in water tankers to combat spot fires, and putting sprinklers at the entrance to the community.

Meanwhile, heavy smoke forced the Cree community of Waswanipi to announce plans to evacuate another 50 residents including seniors, pregnant women and infants under one year old.

In a video update late Saturday, Chief Irene Neeposh asked residents who remained in the community to keep their children inside, keep their doors and windows closed, and to wear a proper-fitting mask while outside.

“We are strongly, I repeat strongly, advising that you do not let your children play outside,” she said. “The smoke being this dense is extremely toxic.”

There was better news in three small communities near the Ontario border, where officials said the more than 300 residents of Val-Paradis, Beaucanton and Lac Pajegasque could go home after being forced to leave on Friday.

The Atikamekw of Opitciwan, about 600 kilometres north of Montreal, also announced that residents of the area who had been evacuated would be allowed to return on Tuesday.

Environment Canada issued smog warnings for much of the province, including Montreal and Quebec City, due to poor air quality caused by fine particles in the air.

The department also issued special weather statements for many of those same cities, forecasting 20 to 40 millimetres of rain in some areas, with more than 50 mm possible in thunderstorms.

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