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Major forest fire continues to spread in Quebec's Lac-Saint-Jean region


MONTREAL — A major forest fire in Quebec's Saguenay-Lac-St-Jean region continued to spread Saturday, with authorities sealing off roads and urging anyone in the sparsely populated area to leave.

Melanie Morin, a spokeswoman for the agency that oversees forest fire prevention in the province, said the area covered by the aggressive blaze stood at 58,489 hectares — nearly double the size compared to Friday.

"The biggest concern with this fire, as usually is with out-of-control fires, is the weather," Morin said Saturday. "This fire started Tuesday and has consistently grown day after day despite our suppression efforts."

Her organization has made several targeted strikes to protect strategic points like bridges, certain outfitters and the Peribonka IV hydroelectric station.

Morin said they are patrolling the area, doing strategic attacks and have set up a sprinkler system near the installation.

Maxence Huard-Lefebvre, a spokesman for the provincially-owned utility, said there's a one-kilometre buffer of untouched forest between the fire and the station.

Huard-Lefebvre said they are monitoring the situation closely, but there is no concern for any community being impacted by a power outage.

Peribonka is dormant as a preventative measure but it's one of more than 60 stations that are linked as part of an interconnected network.

The fierce Lac-St-Jean fire is one of at least 12 current blazes in Quebec — but the only one considered out of control.

The fire started north of Dolbeau-Mistassini, in an area known as Chutes-des-Passes, first heading east for a few days before winds shifted the fire south towards Peribonka.

About 100 employees of the forest fire agency, known as SOPFEU, and 49 forest firefighters are battling the blaze with a call for reinforcements from across the province.

Planes and helicopters are being used to combat the blaze, with temperatures expected to feel like 40 C in the area, further complicating the work of firefighters on the ground.

The area in the northern boreal forest has a large number of fishing camps, shacks and chalets.

It's too early to say what damage has been done as fires sometime miss pockets of area.

“There are many chalets in the area and the two affected regional county municipalities, Maria-Chapdelaine and the Fjord-du-Saguenay, have been scrambling since the start of this fire to reach the owners of these chalets," said Josee Poitras, another SOPFEU spokeswoman.

"There are chalets that have burned down. Fortunately, there are no casualties and no one has been trapped by the fire."

Quebec's Department of Forestry and Lands has closed the area.

Premier Francois Legault said he was concerned about the situation in both regions and said the priority was to keep citizens out of harm's way.

"Our priority: the safety of Quebecers in nearby areas," Legault tweeted Friday night.

Environment Canada meteorologist Alain Roberge said that warm, dry weather was likely to persist. Despite rain in the forecast for Saturday, it may not be enough to help firefighters in the area. 

“The worst part is that when the first showers arrive, they are often accompanied by thunderstorms," Roberge said. "So even if the rain is there, lightning storms can create new fires."

The fires are creating heavy smog in some parts of the province.

A fire in a bog near Rivere-Ouelle, in the Lower St-Lawrence region, forced the evacuation of nearby homes after winds created a smoky haze.

Municipal firefighters responded along with SOPFEU teams to that fire, covering about 15 hectares.

The provincial agency reports 435 fires this year — double the annual average on this date over the past decade.

Lightning strikes are considered the source of only three blazes — the vast majority have been caused by people.

An open fire ban was renewed in several Quebec regions on Friday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2020.

Sidhartha Banerjee and Helen Moka, The Canadian Press

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