© Reuters. Smoke rises from a wildfire in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia, Canada, in this screen grab taken from a video, June 8, 2023. BC Wildlife Service/Handout via REUTERS
By Rod Nickel and David Ljunggren
WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) -Rain is likely to help clear up smoky air in eastern Canada starting Sunday but may not reach the forest fires raging in the province of Quebec until days later, a government meteorologist said on Saturday.
There were 426 fires across Canada on Saturday morning, 144 of them in Quebec. Canadian forest fires regularly occur in the summer but the scope of the current conflagration – and its early arrival – are unprecedented.
The fires on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have burned 4.4 million hectares so far, forced thousands of Canadians from their homes and spread smoke that has left residents from Toronto to New York gasping for breath.
Federal meteorologist Gerald Cheng told reporters on Saturday that rain was expected Sunday in southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec, which will likely help clear smoke.
The rain looks set to reach more northern parts of Quebec – where the biggest fires are burning – starting Tuesday but only 10-20 mm (0.4-0.8 inches) of precipitation is expected, Cheng said.
“Our concern is that it’s not a lot of rain,” he said.
Officials say that by Monday there will be around 1,200 firefighters, including more than 100 from France, battling blazes across Quebec, a heavily wooded province of 8.5 million people that covers more territory than Germany, Spain and France combined.
“In the next few days there is a risk the situation will stay critical. But the arrival of French firefighters is really going to help,” Quebec Forestry Minister Maite Blanchette Vezina said on Friday.
More than 13,000 people have been evacuated from towns in the north of Quebec.
In the Pacific province of British Columbia, weather improved on Saturday as firefighters battled a large 20,000-hectare (50,000-acre) blaze in the remote foothills of the Rocky Mountains near the eastern border with Alberta.
Winds that had been blowing westward toward the mostly evacuated community of Tumbler Ridge, about 1,000 km (600 miles) northeast of Vancouver, turned to the east. Temperatures also cooled, allowing firefighters to get closer to the fire, said Karley Desrosiers, information officer for the B.C. Wildfire Service.
The fire is just 4 km (2-1/2 miles) from Tumbler Ridge, where about 150 of its 2,400 residents remain.
“I can’t say the risk has been alleviated because it absolutely has not, but at this exact moment, the weather is working in our favor,” she said.
Drizzling rain has helped, but the forest is so dry from drought that the area needs heavier rain to make a major difference, Desrosiers said.