With a nearby forest fire posing an immediate threat to the community, a state of emergency was declared in Nemaska on Saturday, May 26th. According to local economic development officer Lawrence Jimikin, the fire had started Thursday morning (May 24th) at his brother’s hunting camp, at the southwest end of the lake. Two skidoos were salvaged from the camp and moved out of harm’s way to a nearby island before the camp burned down. The cause of the fire is unknown, but there is speculation that it might have been due to human error, such as a camp fire not being properly doused, or possibly a burning cigarette butt.
Though the fire was heading inland on Thursday and Friday, it was moving away from Nemaska and posed little threat. On Saturday the wind shifted back towards the community and a state of emergency was declared that afternoon. The decision was made to evacuate the population and this took place late Saturday and early Sunday morning. A fleet of cars, buses, and vans transported evacuees to Mistissini and Waskaganish.
Matthew Wapachee, Nemaska’s director of public safety, remained behind with the emergency operations team to monitor the situation. “It doesn’t take much time (for a fire to spread), especially when it’s been dry like it’s been,” said Wapachee. Two water bombers were brought in to fight the fire from the air and the weather finally cooperated by furnishing the region with some much needed rain. Though the fire is out and the state of emergency was officially lifted at 1 p.m., Monday the 28th, mop-up operations have been ongoing since the water bombers left on the 27th
The area of the fire has been closely monitored from the air. “SOPFEU (la société de protection des forets contre le feu) were on it from the start,” said deputy chief Matthew Swallow. The organization that oversees forest fires took Swallow and Wapachee on two of their flights to get a view of the situation from the air. SOPFEU, who are normally based in Radisson, slept at the Hydro camp near Nemaska in order to be on hand and keep a close eye on things.
The effort in the air was mirrored on the ground where, as Swallow commented, “people really got involved.” He talked about how the youth were very active in helping to continuously man watchposts around the community, as well as water down the trees. Fire pumps were brought into the bush and the volunteers helped to make a fire break. Hoses were also set up from hydrants to help protect the north side of the community.
The area is still being monitored due to fears that the fire could still be burning underground. Swallow was informed by SOPFEU that such fires can sometimes take as long as a month to completely go out. “There’s no fire, no visible flame, or smoke, but you never know what’s burning underneath,” added Swallow. The threatening fire had come as close as 1.8 kilometers from Nemaska.
Now a debriefing process begins. A gathering was held on Saturday, June 2, to determine how the response was, what was done well, what could be improved. Some expressed concern about the transportation being slow, but this had more to do with the late hour of the operation than it did with the availability of resources. In general, feedback was said to be very positive and most of the people involved were pleased by the overall effectiveness of the operation. “I’m extremely satisfied with how the community performed under difficult circumstances,” said Matthew Wapachee, “the team was very, very efficient.” Though pleased with the effort, Wapachee also expressed concern over available resources in the event of another similar emergency. “We don’t have the equipment or money to effectively fight a fire. You need a helicopter, lots of pumps and hoses. These cost a lot of money and we don’t have it.” The last evacuation of Nemaska was in 1983, also due to a forest fire.