An out-of-control fire was advancing rapidly toward a logging road on Tuesday afternoon, tearing through Canada’s immense — and highly flammable — boreal forest with a force and intensity bewildering to a team of French firefighters.
Surrounded by thick smoke, a handful of them headed into the forest to search for water. A veteran knelt down and used his right finger to sketch a plan on the gravel road, pressing 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 combustibility they had never encountered. Trying to douse this tiny patch would be “pointless.”
“We’re not back home,” said the commander, Fabrice Mossé, as a plume of fire shot up from a cluster of trees nearby, and as an increasingly nervous Canadian logging supervisor who had led the French to the spot said: “The fire’s going to be here any minute. We can chat, but let’s do it 20 kilometers away.”
Back at the base, Commander Mossé said, “If anybody 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 tackle the extraordinary outbreak of forest fires that sent smoke to New York and other cities across North America, forcing millions indoors because of hazardous air quality.
More than 400 wildfires have burned all across Canada. But much of the smoke over Manhattan drifted from Quebec, a province that is unaccustomed to so many enormous fires, and that has already suffered its worst wildfire season on record, with more than two months left to go.
The experience of the French contingent illustrates the challenges of fighting wildfires in Canada as climate change increases the dangers to its boreal forests, the world’s largest intact forest ecosystem and biggest terrestrial carbon vault.
Used to aggressively and quickly attacking much smaller wildfires in France, the French firefighters must adapt to a landspace whose scale has left them in awe: Quebec, a province three times the size of France, is ravaged by fires sometimes a hundred times as large as what they are used to confronting.
There was a “fatalism” in fighting fires in Canada, said one French commander: Fighting them often meant letting them burn, especially in thinly populated areas, and trying to stop them from spreading.
“For us, it’s absolutely impossible to let fires burn,” said Gen. Eric Flores, the leader of the French contingent who is from the Hérault department in southern France, a region with regular wildfires. “In my department, there isn’t a fire that isn’t within 10 kilometers of houses and people. If I let it burn, it will become uncontrollable. That’s why we attack fires very rapidly.”
Initially deployed to three areas in northern Quebec, the French were converging this past week on an area called Obedjiwan — a hot spot 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 members of the Atikamekw First Nations in the reserve of Obedjiwan, not far from a critical hydroelectric dam.
Gravel and dirt roads carved out by a Quebec logging company, Barrette-Chapais, crisscross the vast area surrounding Obedjiwan, which is also home to the Indigenous community’s sprawling ancestral hunting grounds.
Until the French arrived, several immense fires north of Obedjiwan had been left alone as Quebec’s wildfire agency focused its efforts on the province’s inhabited areas, especially the largest city, Chibougamau. As fires reached within 13 miles of Obedijwan, hundreds of older residents, children and others were evacuated to the nearest city, 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 north were still raging out of control. Smoke blanketed the forest, and hundreds of fire clusters could be seen burning below.
Vast stretches had been incinerated, some just next to still verdant areas. Isolated cabins, belonging to residents of Obedijwan, could be spotted, some burned down, others still intact but very near the flames. No wildfire-related deaths have been reported in Quebec, with damage limited mostly to rural cabins and cottages.
Unable to directly confront fires as they would have back home, the French adopted a defensive posture by suppressing embers in charred areas next to intact ones, in consultation with their liaison to the Quebec wildfire agency, Louis 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 a fuel,” Mr. Villeneuve said.
Conifers contain high levels of sap, which burns quickly and acts as an accelerant for fast-moving wildfires, shooting flames high in the air that can cross roads and other barriers.
Not far from their base — a logging camp that General Flores had fortified by quickly cutting down trees along its perimeter — dozens of French firefighters traveled in pickups deep into the forest near a lake. A single cabin, belonging to a member of the Obedjiwan community, stood on its edge, untouched for now.
A helicopter transported small teams deeper still into the forest, dropping them off at hotpoints. There, the French tried to extinguish fires simmering below the surface, dousing the ground with water that they pumped from nearby lakes and streams, in an effort to prevent fires from reigniting and spreading to untouched areas.
It was a long game — fending off fires that could come back to life in the coming summer heat.
“We’re not used to going to areas that already burned,” said Jérôme Schmitt, 37, a French firefighter waiting for the helicopter to pick up his team. “We usually go fight blazes, but we’re adapting.”
The French arrival in Obedjiwan had been delayed by a half-day after the large fire north of the community suddenly crossed a logging road on Monday afternoon.
A couple of hours later, Kevin Chachaé, 36, a member of the Obedjiwan community, was driving nearby in his pickup, not far from his cabin on his ancestral hunting ground.
“I feel helpless, worried and sad all at once,” Mr. Chachaé said, standing next to his truck as flames burned through bush near the side of the road.
He then continued his drive down a narrow dirt road enveloped in thick, stinging smoke. A mile away, a dozen volunteer firefighters from the Atikamekw group were resting after spending a day fighting blazes to save Mr. Chachaé’s cabin.
Some dressed only in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the volunteers had drawn water from nearby creeks, using hoses attached to pumps on three pickups. Only one was a professional, full-time firefighter, and the group included three men fighting fires for the first time.
“I was panicking when I saw a big fire over that hill,” said Hubert Petiquay, 31, one of the three.
The volunteers said they had stopped a fire from spreading to Mr. Chachaé’s cabin a couple of miles away. They had extinguished the main fire, which ignited smaller ones, nicknaming it “la Mère,” or mother, in French. But they had failed to stop another from crossing the logging road — the one that forced the French to make a long detour — and called it “l’échappé,” or the one that escaped.
“For us, we consider the fire to be a living thing,” said Dave Petiquay, 52.
The day after General Flores arrived in the Obedjiwan area, he paid an unannounced visit to the community, which does not have cellphone coverage and is difficult to contact. He found its leaders holding an emergency meeting in the town hall: Residents were increasingly worried and critical, many of the community council, because of the loss of several cabins.
At the request of Jean-Claude Mequish, the chief of Obedjiwan, General Flores was quickly interviewed live on the community radio station to give an assessment of the fires.
“People don’t have information,” Chief Mequish said, “and everybody wants to go fight the fires. I’m against that. Sending somebody with no experience, that’s too dangerous.”
Still, Chief Mequish knew what the cabins meant: life on people’s ancestral lands, an attachment to life and culture in the forest. All of Obedjiwan shut down for two weeks in the spring and autumn, he said, as members went into the forest to reconnect with nature.
“Everything burned down,” Steven Dubé, 46, said in an interview at his kitchen table with his wife, Annick, 45.
With their relatives, they had lost six cabins, tents and canoes on their ancestral lands. There, they used to pick blueberries, hunt moose and partridges, and fish walleyed pike and trout.
“We’ll return there,” he said. “We’ll rebuild in the same place.”