MONTREAL — A Cree community in northern Quebec was being evacuated Friday because heavy smoke from a nearby forest fire was blanketing the town and threatening to cut off the main road to the south of the province.

The wildfire in Mistissini, Que., was about 10 kilometres from the road to southern Quebec — and about 30 kilometres from the town itself, Chief Michael Petawabno said in an interview. Mistissini is the second largest Cree community in the province, home to around 4,000 people.

"It's mainly the heavy smoke that's coming into the community that's the big factor," Petawabno said, adding that the air quality was expected to worsen over the weekend.

Members of his community were starting to get anxious, he said, and had been encouraged to stay inside and close their windows because of the smoke. "Some couldn't even run air exchangers or air conditioners because they could still smell the smoke, so we have to think of the health of the people," he said.

Earlier this month, Quebec Premier François Legault told a news conference that Mistissini was preparing to evacuate — a claim that was quickly contradicted by Petawabno. The premier said shortly after that there had been a miscommunication between the town and provincial fire officials.

Petawabno said Legault's claim sparked panic, as people rushed to get gasoline for their cars and leave town. Now that the community is actually evacuating, he wanted to make sure people had sufficient warning: he issued the order Thursday evening but didn't set a hard deadline for people to leave.

As of 1 p.m., almost 1,500 vehicles had left town, along with six buses carrying around 300 passengers, he said, adding that around 600 vulnerable people had already been evacuated. Most evacuees would go to Saguenay, Que., about 300 kilometres southeast, he said.

Petawabno said he was confident the community would be safe from the flames. Canadian soldiers and firefighters from Spain were staying to protect the town, and fire breaks had been built, he said, adding that Mistissini is located on a peninsula and protected by water.

But even if infrastructure is saved, the charred forests will have an impact on life in the town. For many people, especially elders, the loss of forests — where they used to hunt — is difficult, he said.

#Quebec's second largest #Cree community evacuated as the wildfire in Mistissini, Que. draws near. #fires #wildfires

"That's one of the toughest things for our people here, we live off the land, and they're not too happy with all the destruction that's been caused by these fires," he said. "That's where you feel the hurt."

Scott Forward, a member of Mistissini's emergency operations group, said members of the community handed out masks, helped people with mobility issues register with evacuation coordinators, and ensured people's pets were safe.

"People really do band together in a situation like this," he said in an interview Friday. "It's calm, and I think one of the reasons why it's calm is because it was well planned."

On Friday afternoon, another Cree community, Waswanipi, about 183 kilometres southwest of Mistissini, said around 230 community members with health conditions, as well as pregnant women and infants would be evacuated on Saturday due to poor air quality.

Earlier in the afternoon, the northwestern city of Senneterre, Que., ordered the evacuation of 60 cottages in a rural area about 30 kilometres north of the city centre. Mayor Nathalie-Ann Pelchat said in an email that winds were blowing a fire toward the cottages, but added that no other evacuations were expected.

On Thursday, the northern city of Lebel-sur-Quévillon ordered residents to leave after the same fire cut off one of the two provincial highways connecting the city to the rest of the province.

It was the second time in less than three weeks that the city had ordered an evacuation due to the fires. Residents had been allowed to return on Sunday after a 17-day evacuation earlier this month, but most of the community's approximately 2,000 residents didn't return or left earlier in the week.

For resident Jacynthe Barrette, the second evacuation order was a sign that she made the right decision not to stay in the community when residents were allowed to return. Barrette, who has been staying with her sister in Val-d'Or, Que., around 120 kilometres south of Lebel-sur-Quévillon, said she went back to check on her house and get a few things before leaving again.

Barrette said she's not worried about her home, adding that Lebel-sur-Quévillon is protected by water on three sides, and firefighters, including some from outside the country, were working hard to protect the town.

"What I miss the most is getting back to my friends, my normal life, my routine," she said in an interview Thursday, adding that she missed her involvement with community organizations, including one that helps new immigrants integrate into the community.

There were more than 100 fires burning in Quebec Friday, including 24 that were considered out of control, the province's wildfire prevention agency — SOPFEU — said, adding that continued dry conditions were causing fires to gain strength. Since the beginning of the week, seven fires that had been contained were once again out of control, the agency said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 23, 2023.

— With files from Thomas MacDonald.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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