Thousands of forest fire evacuees in Quebec are heading south. These towns are welcoming them with open arms
Chibougamau residents who fled heat of fires, find warm welcome in Roberval
Hundreds of cots carefully set up in the arena in Roberval, Que., now sit empty. Grey wool blankets lie folded in boxes.
Officials had planned to offer refuge here to many of the 7,000 evacuees fleeing a raging forest fire near Chibougamau, 250 kilometres north.
Instead, the generosity of locals in the Saguenay–Lac-St-Jean region kicked in. After the evacuees arrived early Wednesday morning, local families began arriving at the arena, offering to house them.
"When we made the emergency plan and we received the population of Chibougamau, I didn't know it was possible," Roberval Mayor Serge Bergeron said at a news conference Thursday. "I knew the population of Roberval was generous, but I didn't know it was [this generous]."
Practically every one of the 7,400 evacuees who left Chibougamau has found a real bed in Roberval.
They are staying with friends or family, in a campground in Saint-Félicien that's offering free or reduced fare camping, or with locals — their presence temporarily swelling Roberval, normally population 10,000, and other nearby towns.
Victoria McGuffin, a Chibougamau resident who left in a hurry Tuesday night as wildfire smoke filled the air, arrived at the arena after a seven-hour drive spent in traffic as evacuees clogged the only road out of town.
"I arrived mentally ready to be bedding down in the arena of Roberval for x number of days," she said, "and a lady came by and asked if I'd like to go to their place and I was like 'yeah that sounds better than what I was expecting to be dealing with.'"
McGuffin is staying in Saint-Prime, a neighbouring town of 3,000. Her host is the town's mayor, Marie-Noëlle Bhérer.
"I wanted to make a difference," Bhérer said. "It was a natural to come see if my neighbours needed help. I brought my arms and all my love to share."
It's a line echoed by many of the Roberval volunteers who are helping to house, feed and care for the Chibougamau residents who need it.
"It's just how I am," said Marlène Boivin, a Roberval resident who is housing four seniors from Chibougamau in her home, as she dished out a plate of spaghetti at the arena.
The city is providing some supplies and local restaurants are pitching in too, sending food and beverages.
"It's fun to see people happy and less worried about the financial side of things," Boivin said. "It would be expensive otherwise, finding lodging and food. Now it's all provided. Everything is for the best in the best of worlds."
Luc Lagesse, his wife and young son were one of the few families who remained at the arena on Thursday, where they said they felt comfortable. The fear of losing their home to the flames weighs on them, Lagesse said, but the community has been helping to ease their stress.
"It's been a very, very sort of scary experience but also positive to see how much the community has rallied behind this issue," he said. "We've had several offers from families around town to say 'look if you ever have issues with needing a place to stay we're welcoming you into our home, feel free to reach out to us."
Despite the support, it's difficult being away from home. Lagesse is having trouble finding reliable internet for work and his son missed a medical appointment.
Ann-Laurie Tremblay was supposed to pull up to her high-school prom in a vintage car on the weekend wearing a blue dress.
"We were all ready. We were excited for it to happen this weekend," she said. "It's not easy. It's the end of the year, our last moments in high school."
But now prom in Chibougamau will have to wait.
Premier François Legault said at an afternoon news conference Thursday that those evacuated from Chibougamau and other northern communities would probably not be able to return home until at least Tuesday — a week after some of them left.
Still, the news from on the ground in Chibougamau is positive. The main fire nearby has not come any closer and firefighters have completed fortifications surrounding the city: a line of trenches and an area stripped of vegetation to rob the fire of fuel.
Marcel Villeneuve, an 89-year-old Chibougamau evacuee who is staying with a family in Roberval, is confident the city will be fine.
"I've had a guardian angel following me all my life," he said, recalling close calls while working as a helicopter pilot for Hydro-Québec.
When he arrived in Roberval he was upset and depressed because of the fires, which were worse than any he had seen in his 50 years living in Chibougamau.
"It's insane," he said. "It's hell."
But the guardian angel came through again, he said, in the form of the kindness of the people of Roberval, who found a young couple to house and take care of him.
"They're so nice. They're too nice," he said. "I'm lucky. I'm so lucky."