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Rain to help clear Canada’s air soon, but days away from Quebec fires

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By David Ljunggren and Rod Nickel

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Rain is likely to help clear up smoky air from forest fires 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.

By Saturday morning, there were 426 fires across Canada, 144 of them in Quebec. Canadian forest fires regularly occur in the summer but the scope of the current conflagration – and its early arrival – is unprecedented.

The fires spanning the Atlantic and Pacific coasts have forced thousands of Canadians from their homes and smoke has left residents from Toronto to New York gasping for breath.

Federal meteorologist Gerald Cheng told reporters on Saturday that rain was expected starting on Sunday in southern Ontario and southwestern Quebec, which may help clear smoke.

The rain looks set to reach more northern parts of Quebec – where the biggest fires are burning – starting Tuesday but only 10-20mm (0.4-0.8 inches) 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.

Vezina said some roads that had been closed were now open again, adding, “we’re moving in the right direction.” Asked about the potential for allowing people to return home, Quebec Public Safety Minister Francois Bonnardel said, “It’s clear that it (the situation) could stay problematic until Monday night”.

Authorities in the Pacific province of British Columbia, where several small settlements have been evacuated, have made little mention of progress in the fight against blazes there.

“Right now conditions are very dry. Please use caution so that we can try our best to avoid a catastrophic fire season,” British Columbia Premier David Eby said on Friday.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa and Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, editing by Deepa BabingtonEditing by Matthew Lewis)

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