An out-of-control fire was fast-moving towards a logging road on Tuesday afternoon, ripping through Canada’s immense and highly flammable boreal forest with staggering strength and intensity for a team of French firefighters.
Surrounded by thick smoke, a handful of them headed into the forest in search of water. One veteran got down on one knee and used his right finger to draw a plan on the dirt road, pressing down to attack the fire head-on.
But the commander was not convinced. The fire, he said, was of an immensity unimaginable in France. The conifers of a flammability they had never encountered. Trying to get rid of this tiny spot would be “useless”.
“We didn’t go home,” said the commander, Fabrice Mossé, as a plume of fire rose from a nearby clump of trees, and as an increasingly nervous Canadian logging supervisor who had led the French to the scene said : “The fire will be here any minute. We can chat, but let’s do it 20 kilometers away.”
Back at base, Commander Mossé said, “If anyone in New York is wondering why there’s smoke there, it’s because the fires here are unstoppable.”
“Unstoppable,” he repeated.
A group of 109 French firefighters arrived in northern Quebec about a week ago to assist nearly 1,000 Canadian firefighters and soldiers, the first foreign reinforcements to help the province deal with the extraordinary outbreak of wildfires that have sent smoke to New York and other cities in North America. , forcing millions of people indoors due to dangerous air quality.
More than 400 wildfires have burned across Canada. But much of the smoke above Manhattan came from Quebec, a province that is not used to so many huge fires and has already suffered its worst fire season on record, with more than two months to go.
The experience of the French contingent illustrates the challenges of firefighting Canada as climate change increases the dangers to its boreal forests, the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem and the largest terrestrial carbon sink.
Accustomed to aggressively and rapidly attacking much smaller forest fires in France, French firefighters must adapt to a land space whose size has left them in awe: Quebec, a province three times the size of France, is devastated from fires sometimes a hundred times bigger than what they are used to dealing with.
There was a “fatalism” to fighting fires in Canada, a French commander said: Fighting them often meant letting them burn, especially in sparsely populated areas, and trying to stop them from spreading.
“It is absolutely impossible for us to let the fires burn,” said General Eric Flores, the head of the French contingent who hails from the Hérault department in southern France, a region with frequent fires. “In my department there is no fire that is not less than 10 kilometers from houses and people. If I let it burn, it will become uncontrollable. That’s why we attack fires very quickly.
Initially deployed in three areas in northern Quebec, the French were converging last week in an area called Obedjiwan, a hotspot about 400 miles north of Montreal by road.
The battle for Obedjiwan was taking place in a typical patch of Canadian boreal forest: it was inhabited by a single community of about 2,000 Atikamekw First Nations members on the Obedjiwan Reservation, not far from a critical hydroelectric dam.
Gravel and dirt roads carved by a Quebec lumber company, Barrette-Chapais, traverse the vast area surrounding Obedjiwan, which is also home to the indigenous community’s vast ancestral hunting grounds.
Until the French arrived, several immense fires north of Obedjiwan had been left alone as the Quebec Fire Agency concentrated its efforts on the inhabited areas of the province, especially the largest city, Chibougamau. When the fires reached a 13-mile radius of Obedijwan, hundreds of elderly people, children and others were evacuated to the nearest town, about four hours away by road.
Surveying the area by helicopter, General Flores saw that the fire closest to Obedjiwan was contained, but two larger fires to the north were still raging unchecked. Smoke blanketed the forest and hundreds of clusters of fire could be seen burning below.
Vast expanses had been incinerated, some right next to areas that were still green. Isolated huts belonging to Obedijwan residents could be seen, some burned, others still intact but very close to the flames. In Quebec, no forest fire-related deaths have been reported, with damage limited primarily to rural cabins and cottages.
Unable to deal directly with the fires as they would have at home, the French adopted a defensive stance by suppressing embers in charred areas alongside intact ones, in consultation with their connection to Quebec fire agencyLouis 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 contain high levels of sap, which burns quickly and acts as an accelerant for fast-moving fires, shooting flames into the air that can cut through roads and other barriers.
Not far from their base — a logging camp that General Flores had fortified by rapidly felling trees along its perimeter — dozens of French firefighters drove by pickup truck into the forest near a lake. A single hut, belonging to a member of the Obedjiwan community, stood on the edge, intact for now.
A helicopter transported small teams even deeper into the forest, unloading them at hot spots. There, the French tried to put out the fires bubbling beneath the surface, dousing the ground with water they pumped from nearby lakes and streams, in an effort to prevent the fires from reigniting and spreading into untouched areas.
It was a long game: fighting off fires that could come back to life in the summer heat.
“We are not used to going to already burned areas,” said Jérôme Schmitt, 37, a French firefighter waiting for the helicopter to pick up his team. “We usually go out to fight fires, but we’re adapting.”
The arrival of the French in Obedjiwan was delayed by half a day after the large fire north of the community suddenly crossed a forest road on Monday afternoon.
A couple of hours later, Kevin Chachaé, 36, a member of the Obedjiwan community, was driving nearby in his pickup truck, not far from his cabin in his ancestral hunting ground.
“I feel helpless, worried and sad at the same time,” said Mr. Chachaé, standing next to his truck as flames burned through the bush near the side of the road.
He then continued his journey along a narrow dirt road shrouded in thick, pungent smoke. A mile away, a dozen volunteer firefighters from the Atikamekw group were resting after spending a day battling the flames to save Mr. Chachaé’s cabin.
Some clad only in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the volunteers had drawn water from nearby streams, using hoses connected to pumps on three pickup trucks. Only one was a full-time professional firefighter, and the group included three men fighting fires for the first time.
“I was in a panic when I saw a big fire on that hill,” said Hubert Petiquay, 31, one of the three.
Volunteers said they prevented a fire from spreading to Mr. Chachaé’s cabin a couple of miles away. They had put out the main fire, which lit the smaller ones, nicknamed “la Mère”, or mother, in French. But they hadn’t been able to stop another from crossing the forest road – the one that forced the French to take a long detour – and they had called it “l’échappé”, or the one who escaped.
“For us, we consider fire a living thing,” said Dave Petiquay, 52.
The day after his arrival in the Obedjiwan area, General Flores made an unannounced visit to the community, which has no cell phone coverage and is difficult to contact. He found his top management holding an emergency meeting in the city hall: residents were increasingly worried and critical, many from the city council, due to the loss of several cabins.
At the request of Jean-Claude Mequish, the head of Obedjiwan, General Flores was quickly interviewed live by the community radio station to give an assessment of the fires.
“People have no information,” Chief Mequish said, “and they all want to go and fight the fires. I am against. Sending someone without experience is too dangerous.”
However, the Mequish chief knew what the huts meant: life in the ancestral lands of the people, an attachment to life and culture in the forest. All of Obedjiwan shut down for two weeks in the spring and fall, he said, as members headed into the forest to reconnect with nature.
“Everything burned,” Steven Dubé, 46, said in an interview at his kitchen table with his wife, Annick, 45.
With their relatives they had lost six huts, tents and canoes on their ancestral lands. There they gathered blueberries, hunted moose and partridge, and fished for pike and trout.
“We’ll go back there,” he said. “We will rebuild in the same place.”