Residents of northern Quebec awaiting help with forest fires

UNDATED, - Remote communities are awaiting help to deal with major forest fires that have ripped through northern Quebec.

Left to burn on their own over the past month, the fires have charred about 300,000 hectares of forest, causing an evacuation from one community and hampering shipments of food to northern grocery stores.

Matagami Mayor Rene Dube, who chairs a regional group of elected officials, says he's concerned about the town of Eastmain and a gold-mine project that have been disrupted by evacuations.

About 300 people, mainly the elderly, have been removed from the Cree community 1,200 kilometres north of Montreal. They have been moved to Val d'Or, but Dube says many residents have stayed behind to try to protect the town.

The fires have burned to within four kilometres of the aboriginal community.

SOPFEU, the provincial forest-fire protection service, has no jurisdiction above the 51st parallel and it's waiting for a call from the government to intervene.

The main highway to James Bay has been closed. The closure means food and other supplies can't be shipped into the area.

John Boudrias, who is with the Cree Outfitting and Tourism Association, said Friday that five communities could run into food shortages in the coming days.

"It's a matter of days before they're going to have to change their strategy for food," he said in an interview from nearby Chibougamau.

Boudrias pointed out that four of the communities, along the coast of James Bay, have air strips so supplies can be flown in if necessary.

But he said that the community of Nemaska is further inland and the flames have moved in its direction. Boudrias said Eastmain no longer appears to be threatened because the flames have changed direction.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois told reporters in Montreal that every effort possible was underway to deal with the situation.

But she also said several fires are so large that it's impossible to try to control them and put them out.

The fires are being blamed on the driest summer in 40 years around James Bay, the hub of the province's hydro production.

Three major forest fires are being monitored — including the biggest one, which has raged at speeds of up to 30 kilometres per hour.

Goldcorp also said in a news release that it's begun evacuating employees from its Eleonore gold mining project. A fire with prevailing winds is about 100 kilometres away and is advancing toward the site.

Satellite images show smoke over a sizeable chunk of the northwestern part of the province. Some of the smoke could even be detected this week hundreds of kilometres away, in Montreal.

The fires are being blamed for playing havoc with hydro transmission lines, which has caused numerous blackout in the province — including a rush-hour shutdown of the Montreal metro system earlier this week.