BurningOver 300 people were evacuated from the community of Eastmain June 27, as forest fires that have ravaged the area for weeks spread within kilometres of the Cree community. Thick smoke permeated the air throughout town as Elders, children and those with health or respiratory issues were taken to Val-d’Or for their own safety. The fire has been burning steadily and increasing in size since June 12.
“SOPFEU (Société de protection des forêts contre le feu) has at least 70 firefighters from out of the community, and we also have local firefighters,” said Eastmain Deputy Chief Johnny Tomatuk, adding that community members who were still in town were prepared to defend Eastmain if the need should arise.
Government agencies and fire prevention teams have rushed to keep people in the area safe and are attempting to tame the blaze using controlled burning techniques and water bombers.
“Right now the fire is burning about four kilometres north of the Eastmain River,” Tomatuk told the Nation July 3. According to Tomatuk, the blaze is claiming hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest per day, with an estimated 270,000 hectares lost July 2 alone. “I’ve spoken with older generations, parents and Elders. None of them have seen a fire of this size in their lifetime. It’s likely one of the largest forest fires ever in northern Quebec,” he said.
The unpredictable nature of the fire has kept the local authorities from taking any chances. The Eeyou Eenou Police and the Sûreté du Québec announced several road closures early in the month. The James Bay Highway was partially closed for an undetermined period of time, with SQ roadblocks preventing anyone from travelling above km 275 or below km 518. Eastmain residents who were not in their community before the fire situation worsened have been unable to return home, and many are with the evacuees in Val-d’Or.
Although smoke from the fire filled Eastmain for days in late June, favourable winds kept the air relatively clear for officials from Parks Canada, SOPFEU and remaining community members once the evacuation had ended. However, power failures throughout Eastmain were causing additional problems, Tomatuk noted.
The intensity and reach of the fire has left many questioning whether the blaze has the potential to affect other communities. In Waskaganish, Director of Public Security Ernest Blueboy reported distant smoke sightings after a strong northeast wind. Similar sightings have occurred in Mistissini and Nemaska.
The fire has also affected industry in the area. Eastmain Radio reported that workers at Goldcorp’s Eleonore project were evacuated July 3 due to the intensity of smoke in the region. Dry weather and scorching climates have only fuelled the fire, and raised the potential of new fires starting.
“It’s so dry that a cigarette on the side of the road can easily start a blaze,” said Wemindji Fire Chief Gregory Visitor. Recently Visitor tried to quell such a blaze with firefighters and volunteers along the highway roughly 100 km outside of the Wemindji before it burned out of control. In the south, smog and air-quality warnings stretched across the province from Gatineau to Drummondville.
Although many of Eastmain’s residents remained displaced as of press time, Tomatuk says that the support from the emergency and environmental services involved in recovery efforts has been overwhelming, as has the outreach from other nations across James Bay and Canada.