MONTREAL — Dominic Vincent’s inn and restaurant in Clova, Que., is fully booked these days, only months after Premier François Legault announced the town of 36 residents would burn to the ground during the unprecedented summer wildfire season.
Far from gone, the hamlet within the city of La Tuque, around 325 kilometres northwest of Montreal, is bustling — filled with out-of-town forestry workers helping to harvest some of the burned wood as quickly as possible before it deteriorates from dryness and insects.
“There’s three years’ worth of harvesting, and a year to do it, so it’s a bit of a race,” Vincent said in a phone interview. “We have a lot of forestry workers here that we normally wouldn’t have at this time of the season,” he said, adding that rental properties are “full, full, full.”
In early June, however, it was another story. As more than 150 forest fires raged across the province, most of the community’s residents had to evacuate due to the approaching flames.
The intensity of the blaze, which grounded water bombers, prompted Legault to warn that the village would be lost.
"Unfortunately, we lost control," Legault said on June 5. "We are going to be obliged to let Clova burn."
Unbeknownst to the premier, the battle to save Clova was far from over.
Vincent was among a team of nine or so citizens who stayed behind to protect Clova, watering the edges of homes and roads for two consecutive nights, sometimes until 4:30 in the morning. At first their equipment was limited to an "obsolete" decades-old pump from the local fire department; later, a number of Quebec businesses stepped up with donations of water tanks, pumps and other modern equipment.
Quebec’s forest fire protection agency corrected Legault shortly after he issued his warning, noting its firefighters were still battling the flames on the ground and by helicopter, even when its planes couldn’t fly.
As the flames came within two kilometres of Clova, Vincent said his team had an evacuation plan in place, and he maintains the crisis "looked worse from the outside." He said that by the time Legault said the town was burning down and he started getting panicked calls from residents who had evacuated, the worst had already passed.
Éric Chagnon, a city councillor for the city of La Tuque, whose sector includes Clova, said it was unfortunate that Legault wasn’t better informed on the current conditions.
“When you see a premier say, ‘we’re going to have to abandon Clova to save other places,’ I didn’t find that very respectful for the people who are there,” he said in a recent interview.
Chagnon said that while the hamlet officially has just 36 residents, there are usually 100 to 200 people in town staying in the many cottages or working in the forest industry. There are also outdoor outfitters that offer fishing, hunting and snowmobile excursions to the many visiting tourists.
"There’s a lot of tourists, a lot of economy that circulates there.”
Chagnon, who helped bring water tanks to Clova during the fires, says he feels the province needs to learn to better prepare so that villagers aren’t “left to manage themselves” during a fire.
“It’s not normal in a country like Quebec or Canada that we have an army, that we have a whole bunch of people, and that they aren’t trained to go fight fires or help people during painful situations like this,” he said.
He said that while the unprecedented fire situation was caused by an unusual combination of hot and dry weather, high winds and lightning strikes, it’s clear that climate change means such extreme conditions are happening more frequently.
While none of Clova’s primary residences were burned, several people lost their cottages, a situation Vincent said could have been avoided had the townspeople been given more resources.
“There are people who lost chalets because we weren’t equipped to be able to help or do anything,” he said.
The fires were also hard on the forest industry and on tourism operators, who had to shut down during their high season.
Olivier Brossard, owner of Caesar's North Camps in Clova, said that while he was lucky not to lose any cabins to the flames, the fires and the rules prohibiting forest activities meant he lost most of his income for the lucrative month of June.
“We’ve just been through two years of COVID where we had a very low occupancy in tourism, then we had these fires that hit us,” he said in a phone interview, adding he and other outfitters hope to get help from the province.
Now, when Brossard flies his planes over the forest, he can see destroyed cottages and charred woodland. He credits the firefighters from the forest fire protection agency and the residents who stayed for the fact that things weren’t worse.
"I think the people of Clova showed a lot of courage and a lot of effort to save the village,” he said.
Chagnon said life is getting back to normal in Clova and most people who lost cottages plan to rebuild.
“There are people here who will always be here,” he said. “They’ll never leave.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 24, 2023.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press