The people of Mistissini woke up to a frightening occurrence on June 7 after at least six forest fires were ignited by lightning and were threatening the community.
“Most people are gone, it’s just the core people like the police, fire department, the health board, some volunteers and myself who are left,” Mistissini Chief John Longchap, who is acting as spokesperson for the police and firefighters, told the Nation by phone June 8.
“There was lightning yesterday and no rain at all so within an hour the smoke started to get big and we called in the evacuation order around 6:15 [June 7],” he said. The community is not in any immediate danger, but we’re not taking any chances with the people.
“There are about six or seven fires going around the community right now,” he said. “There is one 6 kilometres away to the west, one 7 kilometres away to the north and the one we were most concerned about was in the southeast, where the wind was picking up and it was 13 kilometres away.”
Longchap went on to say that the fire to the southeast would probably run into one of the lakes and stop there, but he cautioned that the fire can jump over the water, but a secondary barrier in the form of a swamp would most likely halt the fires progress.
“SOPFEU (La Société de protection des forêts contre le feu) has deployed their water bombers and we will get some people to help on the ground as it gets closer. Firefighters are on stand by right now and we’re monitoring the situation.”
Longchap said that there have not been any reports of elders having trouble breathing with the heavy smoke. The first people evacuated were the elders and those with breathing problems.
Longchap said that 99 per cent of the community had been evacuated to the arena and some of the schools in Chibougamau. “It’s been coordinated by the Red Cross in Chibougamau. The people are not used to being in one large area, but I spoke with [Deputy Chief] Kathleen Wootton and she said everything is going well.”
Longchap couldn’t remember when a forest fire was this close to the community, but he figured it had to be at least over 10 years ago.
After a brief 48-hour, the smoke had subsided enough and most of the community members returned home safely.
Longchap warned against careless behaviour in the forest. “The fires were not started by careless people, they were started by lightning. However, people should take extra precaution when thinking about making a camp fire or throwing away their cigarettes, especially under extreme dry conditions.”