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International reinforcements arrive in Quebec as wildfires stabilize

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, right, speaks to officials while forest fires are raging as he visits the crisis operation centre in Quebec City, Wednesday, June 7, 2023. Quebec's wildfire season is the worst on record, officials said Wednesday, as the number of evacuees was expected to rise to more than 15,000 by the end of the day. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

MONTREAL — The arrival of firefighters from France and New Brunswick is expected to bolster efforts to contain and control the large number of fires burning across Quebec in what's expected to be a marathon wildfire season, officials said Friday. 

Maïté Blanchette Vézina, the province's minister of forests and natural resources, said the situation in the province remains critical but is improving.

The province's forest fire prevention agency — SOPFEU — says the arrival of fresh forces on the ground is a sign "the sprint phase has ended and we're now in the marathon phase," she told a Quebec City briefing.

Blanchette Vézina said the efforts in the coming days will permit firefighters to contain and begin extinguishing some of the approximately 140 fires that remained active across the province as of Friday morning, including some that have been allowed to burn freely due to a lack of personnel. 

She said the improved situation is also allowing the province to lift the ban on activities in the woods in most of the Côte-Nord and parts of the Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean regions, although forestry work and all forms of fires are still prohibited.

Public Security Minister François Bonnardel said there should be about 1,200 people fighting fires in the province by Monday, including hundreds of firefighters from the United States, Portugal and Spain who were expected to arrive in the coming days. There were also 370 military members helping with logistics, evacuations and fire duties, he added. 

As of Friday, the fires had forced more than 13,500 people from their homes, many of them in the northern municipalities of Chibougamau and Lebel-sur-Quévillon. About 50 people were also evacuated from a detention centre in Amos, Que., as a preventive measure, Bonnardel said.

Despite the stabilizing situation, Bonnardel said it was likely many of the evacuees wouldn't be able to return home before next week. 

He announced the province would offer $1,500 to each household that was evacuated and would fully reimburse affected municipalities for the costs they incurred to run shelters, manage evacuations and fight fires. 

Blanchette Vézina said the wildfire fight on Friday continued to focus on the province's northern and western regions, including on a blaze that came to within 500 metres of a town in the Abitibi region. She said the situation in Normétal, Que., remained critical but that no damage had been reported in the 800-person community located 720 kilometres northwest of Montreal.

Morale among firefighters on the ground remained high, she said, despite a gruelling week.

"They're all fighting, they're all on adrenalin," she said. "What they do, they're there to save lives, save communities, and their work and skills are put to full use. So morale is very good, and even better since reinforcements are arriving." 

SOPFEU has described the current wildfire season as the worst on record. The province has reported a total of 444 wildfires so far this year, compared to an average of 207 at the same date during prior years.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2023.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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