Quebec the new epicentre of Canada's raging wildfires
In this May 28, 2023, image courtesy of the Nova Scotia Government in Canada, smoke rises from a wildfire near Barrington Lake in Nova Scotia's Shelburne County. More than 16,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes in Canada's eastern province of Nova Scotia, officials said Monday, as one of hundreds of wildfires raging across the country threatened the city of Halifax. (Photo by Handout / Nova Scotia Government / AFP) /

MONTREAL, Canada (AFP)— Canada's Quebec province, not used to the huge number, scale and strength of wildfires ravaging the rest of the country, has become the latest hotspot with about 160 fires burning on Tuesday, most of those out of control.

In the hardest-hit Abitibi-Temiscamingue region of the province, more than 650 kilometres (400 miles) north of Montreal, fires that have disrupted mining and forestry operations are "worrying," said Quebec Premier François Legault.

"We are experiencing a situation never seen... everywhere in Quebec," warned Francois Bonnardel, Quebec's public safety minister, stressing that a large number of these fires were sparked by human carelessness.

"Western Canada usually sees a lot of wildfire activity. Quebec doesn't," he noted. "But right now everything is on fire."

Some 4,400 evacuees were permitted to return to their homes in the northern city of Sept-Iles on the shores of the St. Lawrence River as rains arrived to help stall advancing blazes.

"We are very, very happy to see rain," Legault told a news conference.

But further north, he added, there's "a huge fire which will take weeks to extinguish completely, so we must remain cautious."

Canada has been hit repeatedly by extreme weather in recent years, the intensity and frequency of which have increased due to global warming.

After major flare-ups in the west of the country in May, notably in the prairie provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, firefighting shifted in recent weeks to Nova Scotia on the Atlantic coast, before turning to Quebec.

Dozens of fires are still burning in the west of the country: 62 in Alberta, 76 in westernmost British Columbia and 24 in Saskatchewan.

Quebec, meanwhile, has recorded 424 wildfires since the spring thaw -- more than double the average annual count over the past decade.

About 100 firefighters from France were scheduled to arrive by Friday to help fight the Quebec wildfires. This is on top of nearly 1,000 firefighters from Australia, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States who have arrived or were en route to bolster firefighting efforts across Canada.

Wildfire smoke on Tuesday strangled the capital, Ottawa, prompting severe air quality alerts, and darkened skies above Montreal and Toronto. Officials urged residents to limit outdoor activities and said the smoke would not likely clear for another few days.

In Parliament, lawmakers complained about the smell of smoke and ash coating surfaces.

Ottawa resident Abe Bourgi told AFP he woke up to a yellowish haze over the city, and the sun a deep orange colour.

"The smell of smoke is very strong," he said. "Many people are wearing masks in the streets and you have to close the doors and windows otherwise your apartment will smell like an ashtray."

Similar smoke conditions -- stemming from the Canadian fires -- were reported down the US Atlantic seaboard, triggering air quality alerts. In New York, the Manhattan skyline was barely visible from other boroughs.

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