Firefighters battled hundreds of forest blazes on Wednesday as Canada’s worst-ever early season wildfires prompted the evacuation of thousands and a blanket of smoky air wafting over U.S. cities.
There are fires in nearly all of Canada’s provinces and territories, with the eastern province of Quebec among the worst affected. The province, Canada’s second-most populous, has suffered four times its 10-year average of wildfires so far this year.
“Right now, with the manpower we have, we can fight about 40 fires at the same time. But we have 150 fires so we have to make sure that we focus where the problems are the more urgent,” Quebec premier Francois Legault told reporters.
South of the border, more than a dozen U.S. states were under air-quality alerts on Wednesday as smoke from the wildfires wafted south, casting a dull gray pallor over the skyline of New York and other big cities.
About 520 firefighters were battling the blazes with another 150 due to join soon from the army, Legault said. He said he hoped 500 more would arrive in the next few days from the neighboring province of New Brunswick as well as France, the United States, Portugal, Spain, and Mexico.
Residents of the towns of Chibougamau and Ouje-Bougoumou in northern Quebec received evacuation orders Tuesday night, becoming the latest group of people in the province to evacuate homes after thousands were forced out last week.
Around 11,400 people have been evacuated so far from remote parts of northern Quebec and another 4,000 will be evacuated soon, Legault said. With not enough rain in the forecast for Quebec until next week, people should not expect to return home in the next few days, he added.
An unusually early and intense start to wildfire season has set Canada on track for its worst-ever year of fire destruction as warm and dry conditions are expected to persist for months.
In neighboring Ontario province, Canada’s most populous, deteriorating air quality has been forecast this week in cities including Ottawa and Toronto due to smoke plumes.
Wildfires are common in Canada’s western provinces, but this year flames have mushroomed rapidly in the country’s east.
About 3.3 million hectares have already burned – some 13 times the 10-year average – and more than 120,000 people have been at least temporarily forced out of their homes.