Rain helps firefighters decrease number of forest fires in Quebec

MONTREAL — Firefighters battling major forest fires in Quebec finally appeared to be gaining the upper hand as hundreds more residents were being allowed to return to their homes Tuesday.

MONTREAL — Firefighters battling major forest fires in Quebec finally appeared to be gaining the upper hand as hundreds more residents were being allowed to return to their homes Tuesday.

A Quebec government official said 13 millimetres of rain that fell on the Haute-Maurice region — the area hit hardest by the forest fires — offered some relief.

It was a welcome change after days of dry, hot weather contributed to potent forest fires that sent acrid clouds billowing across the border and through several U.S. states.

A total of 39 forest fires were burning in the province Tuesday with five of them still out of control — a far cry from the 60 fires last week, 16 of which were beyond control.

Firefighters were aided by a confluence of factors: there was the light rain, but also an increase in humidity and a drop in wind.

“It’s not rain that put the fires out, but (it) allowed us to get in there to work more safely and more efficiently with our crews,” said Melanie Morin of Quebec’s forest-fire protection agency.

The flames have so far engulfed an area of forest twice the size of the island of Montreal. The outbreaks have occurred several hundred kilometres north of the city.

Morin said the situation is not unprecedented.

“The past few years have been quiet but, if we think back to 2007, we had a very similar year,” Morin noted.

“At the end of 2007, we had over 270,000 hectares of land burned in Quebec and, so far, we’re at 109,000 hectares for 2010.”

This year’s fires have forced the evacuation of about 2,600 people.

Marie-Elisabeth O’Neill, a public security official, said most residents of the native reserve of Manawan were expected back in their homes Wednesday after more than 1,200 were originally forced to seek refuge in Joliette.

She said three-quarters of those evacuees — mainly people with respiratory problems, pregnant women and young children — had already returned Monday. The remaining ones were to be bused back late Tuesday.

About 300 residents of Obedjewan, another reserve, were also due to return to their homes Wednesday morning.

But it’s still not known when 1,300 people who were obliged to leave the First Nations town of Wemotaci will return from their temporary shelter in La Tuque.

“It’s really in the centre of a forbidden zone,” O’Neill said. “It’s still too dangerous.”

In recent days, the fires sent a noxious haze creeping across several U.S. states, as far down as Massachusetts.

More than 1,300 firefighters are battling the blazes, with 300 of them coming from outside Quebec.

Most of the out-of-town help is from British Columbia, which is supplying more than 190 firefighters.

Manitoba sent two water bombers and Alberta, New Brunswick and the U.S. states of Maine and New Hampshire supplied manpower.