Forest fires, thought to be caused by lightning, came to within mere feet of some Mistissini houses and left many residents thinking they had seen the last of their homes.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 12 years and in my mind, I didn’t think my house would be there when I got back,” said volunteer fireman Jeff Spencer of the June 16-18 evacuation. “I took my camera, my laptop and ten photo albums. I tried to save whatever memories I have.”
The possibility of the community partially burning became a reality when a mobile home caught fire on the edge of town. Firefighters, already struggling with larger fires and with barely enough hose to go around, snapped up a garden hose and put it out. Luckily, no one was in the trailer at the time.
La Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (Sopfeu) said that up to 3000 hectares have burned in the latest string of fires.
“The second fire came really close to the community and was really dangerous,” said Chief John Longchap. “We had a lot of dense smoke in the community. It was a very anxious time in the community. Fortunately our firefighters were able to put out the fires that came close to us.”
Longchap told the Nation that the fires were so intense that the flames were 20 stories high in some places.
“We couldn’t even see one street over,” he said. “We’ve had more cases of anxiety at the hospital than the first time because some people thought the community would catch on fire and burn down. There was a real possibility of that happening.”
“Our guys did a fantastic job,” said Spencer. “Sopfeu was a great addition to our team and we all worked together. These young guys ought to be commended for their dedication and the job they did.”
Spencer mentioned that the firefighters also went out to Perch River, 20 kilometres away, and saved one community members’ camp.
“This last evacuation just proved to me that there is a great future for the community in firefighting.”
Most people were evacuated to Chibougamau where they stayed for two days at the hospital, the arena, the Native Friendship Centre and the schools.
“Sopfeu and the firefighters were the front line people and we owe it to them that our community didn’t burn,” said Chief Longchap. “At one point we had 80 Sopfeu ground crew and 10 helicopters, plus water bombers. They got the fires under control and they made sure they were completely out.”
Longchap also had high praise for a few other volunteers who stayed behind to help.
“The volunteers that stayed behind in the community deserve credit and deserve to be recognized,” said Chief Longchap. “Jack and Christopher Quinn stayed behind to provide food for people in the community. It was important to give the firefighters and others that stayed behind food that gave them the proper nutrition. I tip my hat to the people that helped in anyway they could, especially Jack and Chris.”
When asked about the old saying that bad things come in threes, Longchap was optimistic. “Two evacuations in less than two weeks are enough,” he continued. “I’m hoping for more rain in our area soon.”
Longchap said that community members who notice a fire or a “hot spot” should notify the leadership immediately and wait in their home for further instruction.