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Six months after historic forest fires, municipalities still shaken | Forest fires 2023

Natasha Kumar By Natasha Kumar Dec23,2023

Six months after historic forest fires, municipalities still shaken | Forest fires 2023

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The main forest fire in the Lebel-sur-Quévillon sector covered more than 90 kilometers long and 56 kilometers wide.

The Canadian Press

During the first evacuation of Lebel-sur-Quévillon in June 2023, Mayor Guy Lafrenière spent several nights hiding in another municipality. He wanted to prevent his citizens from needlessly panicking at the idea that the city, threatened by fire, was completely empty.

On June 5, three days after the evacuation of the municipality, only around ten residents remained in Lebel- sur-Quévillon: the mayor, two city employees and volunteer firefighters.

In the evening, the fire had become so threatening that Mayor Guy Lafrenière ordered those who were still there with him to discreetly find a place to sleep in another city , about a hundred kilometers to the south.

It's too dangerous, you have to go and hide in Senneterre, because it Citizens must not see you, the mayor explained to them.

Guy Lafrenière also hid in Senneterre that evening, as well as on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening.

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The mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Guy Lafrenière, during the forest fire crisis which severely affected his city.

Wildfires 2023

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Forest fires 2023

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The citizens should not know that the city was completely empty, we did that to avoid worry and panic, says- he.

The mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon explains that the mayor of Senneterre, Nathalie-Ann Pelchat, provided him with work space, with walls painted the same color as his office at the town hall of Lebel-sur-Quévillon.

I needed an office that looked like mine so that no one would realize that I was doing my interviews from Senneterre.

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

During the days following June 5, every morning, the mayor took the road north to spend the day in Lebel-sur-Quévillon in order to observe the progress of the fire and inquire about the extent of the damage.

When daylight fell, he returned to the town hall of Senneterre. I waited until nightfall to cross the street and go to sleep at the hotel, he says.

Guy Lafrenière remembers the moment when the Society for the Protection of Forests Against Fire (SOPFEU) advised him to leave his town and the long hours of anguish that followed.

We all left at eight o'clock in the evening and I went to the golf club, since it's the highest place to see the city. I got out of my truck and looked at the city, he said.

I said "I hope you will be there tomorrow morning, otherwise I will no longer be mayor, I will no longer have a house, my children, my grandchildren and my friends neither."

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

Residents of Lebel-sur-Quévillon have were able to return to their homes two weeks after this evacuation, but the relief was short-lived, as they were again ordered to leave the locality in the last week of June.

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Smoke from forest fires on June 23, 2023 in the Lebel-sur-Quévillon sector.

The fires have left traces in the landscape, the economy, but also on the health of citizens, in Lebel-sur-Quévillon, Chibougamau and in several other communities affected by these historic fires.

People were stressed for a long time, life returned a little to normal in mid-September, explains Guy Lafrenière. He emphasizes that it took several episodes of rain for the population to really feel safe.

There are some who have had so much afraid that they will never come back, laments the mayor, referring to certain families who have simply left the region.

He estimates that the forest fires have decimated hundreds of infrastructures, fishing cabins and hunting camps. The way of life of many Quévillon residents has been completely disrupted.

On Friday, the people were going into the woods for the weekend, but there, almost everything went to the fire, the shelters, the vacation spot. It's a radical life change.

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

The city of Chibougamau was also evacuated in disaster last June.

What worries Mayor Manon Cyr the most is the impact that the fires will have on the forestry industry, which is heart of economic activity in the region.

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Manon Cyr is of the opinion that the management of the evacuation of the city allowed elected officials to emerge better equipped.

The area burned in 2023, 99.9% caused by lightning according to SOPFEU, is higher than the sum of the last 20 years, all mixed causes.

It's a drama. It is a forestry capital that has gone up in smoke and that will not be found for a long time.

A quote from Manon Cyr, mayor of Chibougamau

The forest fires forced Quebec's Chief Forester to recommend a reduction in timber harvesting for the period 2023-2028. This drop in forest capacity is estimated at more than 619,400 cubic meters.

According to industry estimates, this is the equivalent of the quantity of wood needed to manufacture 13,000 houses per year, explains the mayor of Chibougamau.

To mitigate the x27;impact of this forest reduction, she expects the government to put in place a strategy.

Our requests to the Quebec government will certainly affect the increase in budgets for silvicultural work and of forest regeneration.

A quote from Manon Cyr, mayor of Chibougamau

The 2023 wildfires have decimated 4.5 million hectares of forest and extensive work is needed to make forests more resilient to climate change.

In the past, it was mainly the forestry industry that dictated the type of tree that was planted in northern Quebec, and favored species like white spruce or black spruce, which are used in the production of construction lumber.

However, these trees are not very resilient to forest fires and climate disruption.

We need to change the way we work, explains Guy Lafrenière.

We need to plant more hardwoods, because hardwoods almost don't burn .

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

He recalls that the challenge consists of finding the right balance between the planting of conifers used by industry and deciduous trees, which will allow the forest to be more resilient to forest fires and other climatic hazards. /p>

Deciduous trees can act as a firebreak, so we can replant conifers, but we must also plant strips of deciduous trees around them, indicates Guy Lafrenière.

Diversifying forests, planting tree species in the north that previously only grew in the south, defining adaptation strategies specific to each region and reviewing current forestry practices are among the recommendations made last fall by Chief Forester Louis Pelletier to the Legault government.

We believe that our forest management, as carried out for several years in Quebec, must evolve. We believe that the status quo of our practices cannot be considered in the face of the challenges posed by the adaptation of the forest environment to new climatic conditions, underlined Louis Pelletier in his report.

Climate change has arrived here, there are a lot more people talking about it now in the community.

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

Of course we don't expect another big fire for a long time, because all the trees have burned, but what #x27;what can climate change bring in 2024? asked the mayor, emphasizing the importance of having prevention plans.

We are preparing to take stock, because each community or each city is responsible for its emergency measures, underlines the mayor of Chibougamau.

She adds, however, that an organization is necessary on a regional scale.

When you evacuate a town like Chibougamau, it has an impact on Chapais or even on Mistissini, so we have to look at how we can better equip ourselves and organize ourselves at the regional level.

A quote by Manon Cyr, mayor of Chibougamau

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The Chibougamau forest fire in June 2023.

Greater collaboration is therefore necessary, according to the mayor, who welcomes the government's decision, announced at the beginning of December, to create a regional directorate of civil security and fire safety specifically for Nord-du-Québec, in order to improve the preparation and resilience of communities in the face of extreme climatic events.

We are in a territory in which there is not much population, but it is a huge territory with very specific challenges, insists -she. It's excellent news to have regional management, it will help communities to be more agile, faster to put emergency measures in place.

Both Guy Lafrenière and Manon Cyr are proud of the way their administrations managed the crisis in the summer of 2023.

If I' had to do it again, I would do it again with the team I have, with my gang. I was a pampered mayor, says Manon Cyr.

Beyond emergency plans to deal with climate disasters, the two elected officials emphasize that communication is the key to getting through such an ordeal.

I did about 300 interviews in June and I really don't regret it, because my people, no matter where they were in Quebec, they heard about the situation. They were well informed thanks to the media, but for the media to inform us well, we must inform them ourselves, explained Guy Lafrenière.

He added that no citizen called him during the crisis, because all the information was in the regional and provincial media, which allowed his team to concentrate on other aspects of crisis management. .

Communication is really the main thing.

A quote from Guy Lafrenière, mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon

Every day, the mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon spoke to citizens live on Facebook. This ritual on the social network allowed him to take stock, remind people of the instructions and bring a little predictability in these moments of uncertainty.

The daily meeting with citizens on the social network was always at the same time and always broadcast from city hall.

The Facebook live, I did them in Lebel-sur-Quévillon, these are the interviews with the media, in the evening, that I did in Senneterre, the mayor would like to specify, adding that' he later informed the citizens of this subterfuge and that no one holds it against him.

On the contrary, even today, people stop me in the street to thank me for keeping them well informed, he says.

Natasha Kumar

By Natasha Kumar

Natasha Kumar has been a reporter on the news desk since 2018. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining The Times Hub, Natasha Kumar worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my 1-800-268-7116

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