Out-of-control forest fire in Lac-St-Jean likely sparked by poorly extinguished campfire

MONTREAL - An improperly extinguished campfire is the likely cause behind a massive blaze in Quebec's Lac-St-Jean region that remains out of control, Quebec's Forestry Minister told a briefing on Sunday.

"This photo is possibly where fire started," Pierre Dufour told reporters in Roberval, Que., holding up a photo of a campfire surrounded by charred land.

"In this case, it wasn't someone with a chalet, it was someone in a boat who'd probably stopped to camp with a tent and lit a fire that wasn't properly extinguished."

Dufour said it serves as an example why citizens need to heed authorities when they ask open fires not be lit — given the enormous amount of damage it can cause.

An open fire ban was renewed in regions across the province on Friday ahead of the St-Jean Baptiste holiday coming up next week.

Dufour and Municipal Affairs Minister Andree Laforest, who is the minister responsible for the region, toured the area by helicopter on Sunday.

Laforest called the intense hot spell unprecedented for the region, but said she was hopeful that rain forecast would assist firefighters.

The aggressive forest fire was on the move Sunday, but efforts by firefighters on the ground and a change in winds towards the north means a Hydro-Quebec power plant in the area would be spared.

The fire, which started in an area called Chutes-des-Passes on Tuesday, has grown steadily ravaging an area of more than 62,000 hectares since thanks to heavy winds and hot, dry conditions.

Quebec's forest fire prevention agency SOPFEU said there were more than 70 firefighters battling the blaze with 200 additional reinforcements arriving from Ontario and Manitoba as of Monday.

A SOPFEU spokesman said that last year, Quebec was providing assistance in Western Canada, but this year, with double the number of forest fires on average in the province, they'll be accepting the help.

The region impacted doesn't have any towns but a large number of fishing camps, shacks and chalets. It has been closed off to the public with roads shuttered since the end of the week.

There are likely buildings that have been damaged in the zone and authorities provided a number for property owners to call to check.

Dufour said it was important to make a distinction that "out-of-control" shouldn't be a signal the situation is like recent major wildfires in Australia or California.

Instead, firefighters are working to move the blaze in a certain direction, but were not in a position to bring it under control, Dufour explained.

Firefighters have made several targeted strikes to protect strategic points like bridges, outfitters and the Peribonka IV plant.

Maxence Huard-Lefebvre, a spokesman for Hydro-Quebec, said the fire had reached within just over one kilometre of the installation, but a sprinkler system set up Saturday and a change in winds were ushering the flames north.

Huard-Lefebvre added officials are keeping watch, but the installation is well protected against fire, built into the rock and partially underground.

"There would be no impact on the power station even if the entire forest burned in the area," Huard-Lefebvre said.

The site has been dormant in anticipation of the fire and emptied of combustible materials just in case.

SOPFEU firefighters might be spending the night at the plant — which indicates the situation is under control near the plant, Huard-Lefebvre said.

There were at least 18 forest fires in the province, causing smog and hazy smoke in various parts of the province.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 21, 2020.


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