Canada uses French experts to put out huge fires

Canada uses French experts to put out huge fires

  On Tuesday afternoon, an out-of-control fire was advancing rapidly toward a logging road, tearing through Canada's vast forest — wildly blazing — with a force and intensity bewildering to a team of French firefighters.

Surrounded by thick smoke, a handful head into the woods to look for water. A warrior knelt and used his right index finger to draw a plan on the gravel road, pressing down to attack the fire head-on.

But the leader needed to be convinced. He said the fire was unimaginably massive in France. They have never encountered conifers of combustibility. Trying to smother this small patch would be "futile."

"We are not home," said the commander, Fabrice Mussey, as columns of fire shot up from a group of nearby trees and as the increasingly nervous Canadian woodcutting supervisor who had led the French to the post said: "The fire will be here any minute." We can chat, but let's do it 20 kilometers apart.

Returning to the base, Moss said, "If anyone in New York is wondering why there is smoke there, it is because the fires here are unstoppable."

Repeat: "It can't be stopped."

A group of 109 French firefighters arrived in northern Quebec about a week ago to help nearly 1,000 Canadian firefighters and soldiers, the first foreign reinforcements to help the province cope with an unusual wildfire outbreak that has sent smoke to New York and other cities nationwide. North America. , forcing millions indoors due to the dangerous air quality.

More than 400 wildfires have been burning across Canada. But much of the smoke over New York drifted from Quebec, a province unaccustomed to so many wildfires, which has already suffered its worst wildfire season on record, with more than two months to go.

The French contingent's experience illustrates the challenges of fighting wildfires in Canada as climate change increases risks to its boreal forests, the world's largest forest ecosystem, and wild carbon store.

French firefighters are accustomed to attacking France's smaller wildfires with force and speed and must adapt to an area whose size has left them in awe: Quebec, a province three times the size of France, is sometimes ravaged by fires a hundred times its size, what they are used to facing.

One French commander mentioned that there is a "fatalism" in fighting fires in Canada: fighting them often means letting them burn, especially in sparsely populated areas, and trying to prevent them from spreading.

"For us, it is impossible to let the fires burn," said General Eric Floris, commander of the French contingent from the Hérault department in southern France, an area that regularly witnesses wildfires. "My department has no fire within 10 kilometers of houses and people. If you let it burn, it becomes uncontrollable. That is why we attack fires so quickly."

Initially deployed to three districts in northern Quebec, the French have been converging on last week in an area called Obedjiwan — a hot spot about 400 miles north of Montreal by road.

The Battle of Obedjiwan was fought in a typical swath of northern Canadian woodland: it was inhabited by a single community of about 2,000 members of the Atikamekw First Nations on the Obedjiwan Reservation, not far from an important hydroelectric dam.

Cobblestone and dirt roads created by the Quebec logging company, Barrette-Chapais, crisscross the vast region around Ubidgeoin, which is also home to the sprawling hunting grounds of the indigenous community.

Until the arrival of the French, many wildfires north of Obaidjouan were left on their own as the Quebec Forest Fire Agency focused its efforts on populated areas of the province, especially the largest city, Shebugamao. With the fires reaching within 13 miles of Abidjowan, hundreds of older residents, children, and others were evacuated to the nearest town, about four hours away by road.

Surveying the area by helicopter, Flores saw that the fire closest to Obaidjiwan was contained, but two larger fires to the north were still raging out of control. Smoke covered the forest, and hundreds of fire clusters could be seen burning below.

Huge areas have been burned, some of them next to still-green sites. The isolated cabins belonging to the residents of Abdiguan were seen; some of them burned, others still intact but very close to the flames. 

Unable to confront the fires directly as if they were back home, the French took a defensive stance by suppressing embers in charred areas adjacent to the intact ones in consultation with the Quebec Forest Fire Agency's liaison officer, Louis Villeneuve, a veteran of more than two decades.

"It's the immensity of the boreal forest, the immensity of Canada, and the boreal forest is fuel," Villeneuve said.

Conifers have high levels of sap, which burns quickly and accelerates fast-moving wildfires, shooting flames high into the air that can cross roads and other barriers.

Not far from their base—a logging camp that Flores had fortified by quickly logging along its perimeter—dozens of French firefighters drove in pickup trucks deep into the woods near a lake. One room belonging to a member of the Obaidjuan community stood on its edge, untouched.

A helicopter flew small teams deep into the jungle, dropping them off at hotspots. There, the French tried to extinguish the fires below the surface and doused the land with water they pumped from nearby lakes and streams to prevent fires from starting and spreading to untouched areas.

It was a long game - fending off fires that could come to life in the summer heat.

"We are not used to going to areas that have already burned," said Jerome Schmidt, a 37-year-old French firefighter waiting for the helicopter to pick up his team. "We usually go to fight fires, but we adapt."

The French's arrival in Obaidjowan was delayed by half a day after a large fire north of the community suddenly crossed a logging road on Monday afternoon.

Two hours later, Kevin Chachi, 36, a member of the Obedjiwan community, was driving nearby in his minivan, not far from his hut on his ancestral hunting grounds.

"I feel helpless, anxious, and sad all at once," said Chachai, standing next to his truck as bushes blazing near the roadside.

Then he continued driving down a narrow dirt road shrouded in thick, acrid smoke. A mile away, dozens of volunteer firefighters from the Atikamekw group were resting after a day spent fighting fires to save Chachaé's cabin.

Some wore only T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers, and the volunteers had drawn water from nearby streams using hoses attached to pumps in three pickup trucks. Only one was a full-time professional firefighter, and the group included three men fighting fires for the first time.

Hubert Beteke, 31, one of the three, recalled: "I was panicking when I saw a big fire up that hill.

Volunteers said they prevented the fire from spreading to Chachie's cabin, two miles away. They put out the main fire, which lit a smaller fire, calling it "mother" in French. But they failed to prevent another from crossing the logging road—the road that forced the French into a long detour—and called it l'échappé, or the one who escaped.

"For us, fire is a living thing," said Dave Pitkway, 52.

The day after Flores arrived in the Abidjan area, he paid an unannounced visit to the community, which has no cell phone coverage and is difficult to contact. He found its leaders holding an emergency meeting in the town hall: the residents, many of the community council, were increasingly restless and embarrassed at the loss of so many cabins.

At the request of Jean-Claude Mikish, the Obedjiwan president, Flores was quickly interviewed live on the community radio station to assess the fires.

"People don't have information, and everyone wants to fight fires. I'm against that. Sending someone who doesn't have experience is very dangerous," Mekic said.

However, Mikish knew what the cabin meant: life on people's ancestral lands and attachment to life and culture in the woods. He said that Obaidjuan closed for two weeks in the spring and fell as members went into the woods to reconnect with nature.

"It all burned out," mentioned Stephen Doby, 46.

They and their relatives lost six huts, tents, and boats in their ancestral lands. They used to pick blueberries, hunt moose and partridge, and fish for pike and trout there.

He said, "We'll go back there." "We will rebuild in the same place."

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