During the last week of May, with soaring temperatures and no rain for a succession of days, forest fire season began early and with a big bang.

According to Éloïse Richard, an information agent from SOPFEU, Quebec’s forest fire protection agency, though the fires were in the Mauricie region, with southern blowing winds, the fires could be smelled as far away as Montreal and Quebec City. Smoke from these fires also formed a smoggy haze over the urban areas.

With massive forest fires burning in the Joliette and La Tuque areas, the Manouane Wemotaci and Obidjiwan First Nations reserves had to be evacuated as a result of the blazes.

“Since May 17, there have been 190 forest fires in Quebec, 107 were human caused and another 73 were caused by lightning,” said Richard.

According to Richard, approximately 70% of forest fires are of human origin and they usually stem from mishandled cigarette butts, campfires and even all-terrain vehicles (ATVs).

An ATV can spark a blaze when someone drives over dry grass or brush during a very hot and dry period of the year. The fires will ignite when a hot part of the vehicle, such as the tail pipe, comes into contact with the grass.

Richard said this is not the most common scenario, as the majority are campfire or cigarette butt related. She said if someone sees an individual acting carelessly with a cigarette that sparks a forest fire, to call 911 and report the matter.

In terms of safety, Richard’s recommendation was for individuals to get to somewhere safe in the event of a forest fire and to take precautions for those who may be vulnerable to the smoke. In the case of forest fires, sometimes individuals with respiratory difficulties, such as asthma and other disorders, and the elderly will be evacuated first, even if the community is not endanger of being engulfed by the flames. The smoke that gets into the air from distant fires can be enough to trigger breathing difficulties.

While the huge fires that burned during last month’s heat wave may have seemed unusual for that time of the year and were a cause for alarm, Richard said the province is prepared.

“We are not really worried because the weather can always change. We will wait and see, and check the weather regularly. We have a strategy in place for every region in the province because we are the provincial agency that deals with forest fires. We are set up for it and if it is a big summer for us, we are ready for it,” said Richard.

Depending on the weather in different areas, Richard said SOPFEU dispatches water planes and fire fighters to be on standby as a preventative measure so that crews can get to the area faster.

And, when they need help, they get it. In late May and early June, crews from Alberta, British Columbia, Maine, New Hampshire and New Brunswick lent a hand in battling the flames.

In Quebec, the areas that are usually the most affected are Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Matagami, Chibougamau and the surrounding territory or at least this has been the trend in recent years due to the frequency of lightning in the area and because it is heavily forested.

Richard said it is hard to predict as to whether these areas are going to be the worst hit this year because it is all about where the lightning strikes which is impossible to predict.

In terms of the Cree communities, the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay offers the following forest fire safety advice:

If You See a Fire Approaching Your Home

If it is safe, and there is time before the fire arrives, you should take the following action:

– Close all windows and doors in the house.

– Turn off air conditioners and air ventilation systems that bring air from the outside.

– Park your car, unlocked, with a full tank, keys in the ignition and positioned forward out of the driveway.

– Keep car windows closed and have your valuables already packed in your car.

– Turn off propane or natural gas.

– Turn the lights off in the house, porch, garage and yard.

– Inside the house, move combustible materials, such as light curtains and furniture, away from the windows.

– Place a ladder to the roof in the front of the house (for fire fighters).

– Move all combustibles away from the house, including firewood and lawn furniture.

– Evacuate your family and pets to a safe location.