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Canada could exceed the largest total amount of burned area recorded in this country in a single year. Natural Resources Canada released updated data and forecasts Monday showing that, as of June 4, there had been 2,214 wildfires across Canada this year, and about 3.3 million hectares burned. The 10-year average over the same timeframe is 1,624 fires and 254,429 hectares burned.

The department said it is unusual to have blazes across most of the country this early in the wildfire season, and that Canada could pass the annual record for burned area if the current rate of fire activity continues.

As one Quebec city that had been threatened by wildfires lifted an evacuation order Tuesday, authorities turned their attention to communities in the northern and northwestern parts of the province where firefighters worked to beat back threats from out-of-control blazes.

“We’re following all of this from hour to hour, obviously,” Premier François Legault told reporters in Sept-Îles, Que. “If we look at the situation in Quebec as a whole, there are several places where it is still worrying.”

According to the province’s forest fire prevention agency, more than 150 forest fires were burning in the province on Tuesday, including more than 110 deemed out of control.

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Quebec Premier Francois Legault checks the map where forest fires are raging as he visits the crisis operation centre in Quebec City on June 5, 2023.Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

Legault said the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region in northwestern Quebec is an area of particular concern, with the communities of Normétal and Lebel-sur-Quévillon under threat.

The mayor of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, where about 2,100 people were forced from their homes on the weekend, said the fire is about 10 kilometres outside of town, but its advance has been slower than expected. “The fire started in an area where there were no trees, which slowed it down considerably,” Guy Lafrenière said.

Other northern communities at risk include Chibougamau, where crews have been creating firebreaks, and the Cree village of Chisasibi on the eastern shore of James Bay. Firefighting resources have also been dispatched to Hydro-Québec’s Micoua substation near Baie-Comeau, Legault said.

On Monday, Legault said authorities had no choice but to leave the hamlet of Clova to burn, drawing the ire of local residents. Legault said Tuesday that he had simply repeated what fire prevention officials told him: the fire around the tiny community about 325 kilometres northwest of Montreal was too intense to send water bombers. That remained true Tuesday, he said, but he noted that no homes had burned.

Dominic Vincent, the owner of the Auberge Restaurant Clova, said that by Monday afternoon, the situation in the area had already improved, aided by cooler temperatures and a change in wind direction. While smoke remained visible, it was far less intense, he said.

Vincent said that for three days residents worked with crews from Quebec’s forest fire prevention agency, SOPFEU, to protect the village.

“SOPFEU cut fire breaks and we filled tanks with water, along with our friends from the outfitters next to us, to be able to help the places that didn’t have water and then we tried to stop the fire along the side of the roads,” he said in an interview.

On Sunday, the situation was difficult, though it started to improve by the end of the day, he said. Monday, when Legault said the town would be left to burn, was actually a day of progress against the fire, Vincent said.

“It was above all a lack of communication,” he said. “It was a statement that was a day late.”

With so many fires burning, Legault said authorities were focusing on towns and critical infrastructure.

Legault met with civil security officials and firefighting teams in Sept-Îles, Que., where an evacuation order affecting about 4,500 residents of the town and the nearby Innu community of Mani-Utenam was lifted Tuesday.

Sept-Îles Mayor Steeve Beaupré told a separate news conference that the fire was no longer deemed a threat, but he warned residents to be ready to leave again should the situation change.

“I want to make it clear that the fight is far from over,” Beaupré said after delivering the good news. “The fire is still large and active and it could remain so for several days, even several weeks, which means that we could be forced to evacuate certain sectors of Sept-Îles again.”

Meanwhile, Public Security Minister François Bonnardel was in northwestern Quebec where he said more firefighters were expected Wednesday. He said there are concerns for hydro transmission lines and a high-speed internet connection link to the North.

He defended the government’s response to the fires, saying the province is doing everything it can, but all provinces are dealing with their own wildfires.

“We’re experiencing an unprecedented situation, exceptional, everywhere on Quebec territory,” Bonnardel said. “We’ve never had so many fires so early in the season, it’s not just a problem for Quebec, it’s a problem all over Canada.”

Air quality in Ottawa region, United States affected

Hazy, smoky conditions are engulfing the nation’s capital, and Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement for the region.

The federal department says high levels of air pollution have developed in Ottawa, Gatineau and other nearby municipalities due to smoke from nearby wildfires. Wildfires in Quebec and Southeastern Ontario over the weekend have caused thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes.

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Smoke from wildfires hangs over Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 6, 2023.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a poor air quality alert for New England, a day after parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota received a similar advisory. Last week, U.S. officials as far south as Maryland, Baltimore, Virginia and Pennsylvania reported being impacted by the wildfires.

Smoke from Canada’s wildfires has been moving into the United States since last month. The EPA said hazy skies, reduced visibility and the odor of burning wood are likely, and that the smoke will linger for a few days in New England.

Environment Canada was warning that wildfire smoke can be harmful to public health, even at low concentrations.

It advised people in the area to take precautions to protect their health and reduce exposure, including wearing masks, avoiding outdoor activities and contacting health-care providers if they experience irregular symptoms.

People with lung disease, heart disease, older adults, pregnant people and people who work outdoors are at a higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by smoke and smog.

Environment Canada is forecasting a high-risk air quality in the capital region through the week.

As of 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Environment Canada was assessing Ottawa’s air quality as a nine out of 10 on a scale used to measure the severity of conditions, meaning it was high-risk to the local population. Earlier in the day, air quality had been measured at 10+ or deemed as very high-risk.

“It’s a very, very deteriorated air quality. It is the worst in Canada at the moment,” Steven Flisfeder, an Environment Canada meteorologist, said in an interview.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was advising schools under its jurisdiction to keep students inside for recess.

The public school board cancelled a regional track meet scheduled for Tuesday. And First Avenue Public School, just south of downtown Ottawa, cancelled a field trip to Gatineau Park across the river in Quebec due to the air conditions.

The City of Ottawa also cancelled all outdoor recreational programs, activities and leagues operated by the city that were scheduled for Tuesday.

The poor air quality also garnered the attention of federal politicians on Parliament Hill.

“I think we all noticed, even coming into work this morning, you can strongly smell the smoke and see it in the air, and we’re even seeing dust and ash starting to accumulate on surfaces. And so, it is a little concerning,” Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair said before the Liberal government’s weekly cabinet meeting.

Blair said older adults, children and people with respiratory conditions should avoid outdoor activities and suggested that wearing a mask outdoors would be a “really good idea.”

“I have never seen this in my life. It’s incredible! And I see a lot of people wearing the mask today,” Government House leader Mark Holland said upon arriving for the cabinet meeting.

Holland said the hazy weather was prompting him to discuss air quality in government buildings with municipal officials.

Liberal MP Steve MacKinnon, who represents the riding of Gatineau, Que., said he suffers from asthma and had trouble breathing Tuesday morning.

The smog, which came as a result of wildfires expanding across Canada, reached much of Eastern Ontario.

Fire adviser Shayne McCool, with Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, said Tuesday that wildfires near Cochrane, Ont., had seen “significant growth” in the last two days.

One wildfire tripled in size from 600 hectares to 1,840 hectares, he said.

Another fire near Cochrane stood at 1,239 hectares and was considered “not under control.”

“Certainly, we’re seeing a lot more smoke in the air today and that’s pretty obvious across most of the northeast (of the province),” he said.

Though McCool said there had been no official evacuations by Tuesday afternoon, some people in the area were asked to leave as a safety precaution.

Closer to Ottawa, a forest fire was set ablaze near Centennial Lake on Sunday and residents of Greater Madawaska — a municipality about 150 kilometres west of Ottawa — were evacuated from their homes.

The fire has since been “greatly suppressed,” Greater Madawaska Mayor Rob Weir told CTV News.

Well-water testing kits provided to Nova Scotians free of charge

As thousands of Nova Scotians return to their homes after a string of devastating wildfires forced them to flee last week, provincial and municipal officials started offering them free well-water testing kits on Tuesday.

The testing is necessary because in areas where the fire moved through, the groundwater could be contaminated by residue from the fire, chemical fire retardants and fuel from ruptured tanks.

In Halifax, the city informed residents on Twitter that due to limited capacity for lab testing, no more testing kits were available for distribution Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Barrington Lake wildfire is the only fire that remains out of control in Nova Scotia, but fire officials say it is not growing, thanks to heavy rain over the southwestern corner of the province – and more rain is in the forecast for Shelburne County.

As well, the Roseway Hospital in the town of Shelburne was expected to reopen Tuesday after it was evacuated last Wednesday.

Still, a section of the major highway that runs along the western section of Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast remains closed because of the fire.

With a report from The Associated Press

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