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Rain should help Quebec firefighting effort as more than 7,200 people still evacuated

1,500 firefighters expected to be on the ground by the end of the week
Scorched vegetation and forest floor are seen in Normetal, Que., in a June 11, 2023, handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-SOPFEU, Caroline Boyaud

Rain in the forecast and the arrival of more foreign reinforcements are raising hopes that Quebec’s more than 7,000 fire evacuees will be able to return home in the coming days, the province’s public security minister said Tuesday.

François Bonnardel told reporters that rain showers and cooler temperatures should be moving into northwestern Quebec, where powerful forest fires have threatened the towns of Lebel-sur-Quévillon and Normétal. The rain should provide some relief to firefighters over the next three or four days — and hopefully bring good news for displaced residents eager to return home, Bonnardel said.

“People want a little hope,” he told reporters Tuesday in Montreal. “I’m going to try to give them some by telling them that with the weather forecasts for the next hours, we should be able to give you good news in the next 24, 48 hours.”

He said there were slightly more than 7,200 evacuees as of Tuesday morning, down from more than 13,500 late last week – the number varies from hour to hour.

Residents of Chibougamau, 500 kilometres northwest of Quebec City, were returning home after an evacuation order was lifted Monday, and people from a handful of smaller communities would be able to go home on Tuesday, Bonnardel said.

The situation, he said, remained “concerning” in Lebel-sur-Quévillon, which has been threatened by two different fires. One fire that came within about two kilometres of a pulp mill was being successfully held back, but another powerful fire further to the south risked getting bigger should the winds shift, he added.

He urged the town’s 2,000 or so residents to be patient, adding that he hoped all evacuation orders would be lifted this week.

“I know people are nervous, are anxious, are eager to return home,” Bonnardel said. “And I’m telling them to be patient. I know it’s not simple or easy for them.”

He said the fires were being “well-fought” in Normétal, located 720 kilometres northwest of Montreal, in the Abitibi region, where flames had reached within 500 metres of town limits in recent days.

Bonnardel said the fire effort would be bolstered by the arrival this week of two contingents of American firefighters, with more reinforcements from Spain and Portugal expected to arrive Wednesday. By the end of the week, he said there should be 1,500 firefighters on the ground.

There were 124 actives fires in the province as of Tuesday morning, down from about 130 on Monday. There have been a total of 451 fires this season, about double the 10-year annual average for this time of year.