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Photojournalist and trained firefighter Charles-Frédérick Ouellet captures two SOPFEU crews’ efforts to fight wildfires in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region

Photojournalist Charles-Frédérick Ouellet has experienced first-hand the intensity of fighting wildfires on the front line in Quebec.

Mr. Ouellet, who is a firefighter, trained with the Société de protection des forêts contre le feu (SOPFEU) – the organization in charge of fighting wildfires in the province. He was working alongside crews until last week.

On June 15, he traded the firefighter’s hard hat for his camera lens, and documented a day in the life of firefighters’ gruelling work.

From a helicopter flying above the smouldering forest, the SOPFEU teams locate the area northwest of Lac Saint-Jean where they will be concentrating their efforts to bring the fire under control.
Mathieu Tremblay, team leader in command of a four-person unit, negotiates a steep descent with arms full of fire hoses.
Team member Matei Dumais Bédard's hands are dirtied by the ashes from the fire.
Francis Guay, an experienced auxiliary fighter, manoeuvres through the forest at the head of the fire.

“People work day after day, without respite,” for up to 24 consecutive days, he said.

Those workdays are typically 12 hours – with shifts starting at 6 a.m. “We get into a vehicle, we go into the territory, we receive briefings from the combat leader, then we are deployed in the field,” Mr. Ouellet said. “It was an extremely intense workload this year.”

Mr. Ouellet embedded with SOPFEU crews and followed firefighters as they battled a small blaze about 50 kilometres northwest of Girardville, in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.

Canada is facing one of its worst wildfire seasons on record, and Quebec is no exception.

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Smoke lingers amidst the burnt remains of the forest on the edge of the fire line.

As of Friday, according to SOPFEU, nearly one million hectares have been burned by wildfires in the “intensive zone,” where most Quebeckers live. That is about 400 times the average at this time of the year during the past decade.

At the peak of evacuations in the last few weeks, nearly 15,000 people were forced to stay away from their homes as wildfires threatened northern communities like Sept-Îles, Mani-utenam, Chibougamau, and Lebel-sur-Quévillon.

Unlike Western provinces, Quebec is not used to dealing with such intense fire activity. Premier François Legault admitted he was surprised by the extent of the fires. The province’s 2023-2028 plan to mitigate and adapt to climate change does not mention wildfires at all.

As of June 16, according to SOPFEU, nearly one million hectares have been burned by wildfires in the 'intensive zone,' where most Quebeckers live.

SOPFEU could only deal with two to three dozen wildfires at a time, while more than 100 were often – and still are – burning in the intensive zone. Hundreds of foreign firefighters and Canadian Armed Forces personnel came to help as most other provinces were busy protecting their own communities and could not spare resources.

While Mr. Ouellet was out taking photos, fire crews ended up getting a welcome break: In mid-afternoon, a thunderstorm brought much-needed showers – and a rare respite for firefighters.

On the return journey in the rain, the two SOPFEU teams look for a place at the bottom of the mountain to retrieve their equipment more easily.
On June 15, after several weeks of waiting, thunderstorms hit the region, bringing some respite to the teams fighting the forest fires.
The team meets a helicopter at the assembly point for rapid evacuation when a storm cell arrives.

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