Quebec's wildfire season is the worst on record, officials said Wednesday, as the number of evacuees was expected to rise to more than 15,000 by the end of the day.
About 11,400 people have already been forced from their homes because of persistent and unpredictable wildfires, Premier François Legault told reporters in Quebec City. The northern Cree town of Mistissini, located 550 kilometres north of Montreal, would likely be evacuated later on Wednesday, resulting in another 4,000 people added to the evacuee list, the premier said.
The most troublesome areas, he said, were in northern Quebec and in the western Abitibi region, where significant rainfall wasn't expected until Monday. Residents shouldn't expect to be able to return home before the middle of next week, Legault said.
"I want us all to be realistic so that we don't see things through rose-coloured glasses," the premier said. "For the moment, we do not expect rain for the next few days."
Evacuation orders were issued Tuesday night for the northern Quebec town of Chibougamau and the nearby Cree community of Oujé-Bougoumou. The northern town of Chapais, Que., risked being evacuated again, and some parts of Senneterre, Que., were also threatened by the flames, Legault said.
Chapais Mayor Isabelle Lessard asked residents to be prepared to leave if the situation deteriorates, adding Wednesday that residents would be offered shelter in St-Félicien, Que., about 250 kilometres southeast. About 800 people from the town's southern sector were forced from their homes for five days last week.
On Tuesday, Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr asked the town's roughly 7,500 residents to gather in Roberval, Que. — about 250 kilometres away — if they didn't have friends or family elsewhere who could take them in. In Oujé-Bougoumou, about 800 people were ordered to leave and advised that shelter would be provided nearly 400 kilometres to the southeast, in Chicoutimi, Que.
Quebec's forest fire prevention agency — Société de protection des forêts contre le feu — said Wednesday more than 150 forest fires were burning and slightly under 100 of them were considered out of control. More than 457,000 hectares have burned so far this season, the most since the province started keeping records.
"In the history of (the agency) — nearly 50 years — we've surpassed the worst year on record," Natural Resources Minister Maïté Blanchette-Vézina said. "It's a situation that's unprecedented."
Luc Dugas, with Quebec's fire prevention service, said the situation is the worst he's seen in his 23 years at the agency, adding that the fire season was far from over. Firefighters were focused on protecting communities and infrastructure but eventually would have to stamp out fires in isolated areas, he said.
"We're going to need help all summer long, that's for sure," Dugas said.
There were about 520 fire personnel on Wednesday fighting fires in the province, helped by about 150 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, Legault said. They could cover about 40 fires at a time, he added.
Legault said he hoped to have 1,200 firefighters on the ground in the coming weeks, drawing from firefighters in New Brunswick and France in the coming days. He said the province was negotiating with the United States, Portugal, Spain and Mexico for additional resources.
The premier said the wildfires on the province's north shore were under control, one day after residents of Sept-Îles, Que., were allowed to return home. As well, Legault said a Hydro-Québec substation near Baie-Comeau, Que., was no longer under threat from fires.