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'Unprecedented' Canadian forest fires disrupt Quebec mines, exploration


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'Unprecedented' Canadian forest fires disrupt Quebec mines, exploration

SNL Image

Forest fires, such as the one pictured above, are forcing widespread evacuations in Quebec and have led to new rules restricting access to public lands.
Source: US Forest Service

Massive forest fires scorching swaths of Quebec in recent weeks have forced some gold miners to suspend operations and many explorers to halt fieldwork due to safety concerns and restricted access to public lands.

The fires pummeling Canada during an unusually dry spring have burned 3.3 million hectares across the country and affected more than 100,000 people under evacuation orders, according to the Canadian government. Some of the worst fires are raging in Quebec, Canada's top province for exploration budgets in 2022 and a major hub for the country's mining sector.

On June 3, Quebec expanded rules that bar access to much of its forested public lands, which cover the vast majority of the province. The restrictions affect almost all of southwestern Quebec, including regions near mines and prime exploration grounds.

"This year we are experiencing an unprecedented amount of fire for this early in the season," Michael Norton, director general of the Northern Forestry Centre, a Canadian government research organization, said in a June 5 press briefing. "If this rate continues, we could hit record levels for area burned this year."

Mining hit

Several miners suspended or reduced operations due to the fires.

Road closures forced Hecla Mining Co. to halt operations on June 6 at the Casa Berardi gold mine.

At least two other miners reported brief disruptions to gold mining operations, in part because of smoke. Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. canceled some shifts at its Quebec sites on June 2, Natalie Frackleton, Agnico Eagle's director of external communications, told S&P Global Commodity Insights in an email.

Agnico Eagle was the third-largest gold producer in the first quarter of 2023, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. Its Quebec operations include the Canadian Malartic gold mine.

Normal mining operations have since resumed, and the miner is "following the situation closely," Frackleton said.

Likewise, heavy smoke drove Eldorado Gold Corp. to suspend underground operations at its Lamaque gold mine from the June 23 night shift until the June 56 night shift, Michelle Halsey, Eldorado's senior manager of communications, said in an email.

"The situation is reevaluated before the start of each shift with our health and safety and ventilation experts, since air quality varies from day to day and even from hour to hour, in order to validate whether conditions are adequate to allow continuity of our underground operations," Halsey said, noting that the impact has not been material to gold output and that operations have resumed.

A spokesperson for Newmont Corp., the top gold producer in the first quarter, said its Quebec operations had not been directly affected by fires, though a forest fire was active about 40 kilometers from its Eleonore gold mine as of June 5.

"Newmont is closely monitoring the situation with local authorities and is prepared to respond as conditions evolve," Maria Carolina Lucaroni, a spokesperson for Newmont, said in a June 5 email.

SNL Image

Exploration grinds to a halt

The fires have hit Quebec's explorers harder, forcing many companies to evacuate crews and suspend activities in the field, according to June 2 and June 3 announcements.

"We see forest fires every summer, but not as extensive as this," John Burzynski, executive chairman and CEO of Osisko Mining Inc., an explorer that is developing the Windfall Lake gold project in Quebec in partnership with Gold Fields Ltd., told Commodity Insights in an interview. "This is unusually early for fire season. It's been very dry."

Like many other explorers in Quebec, Osisko evacuated its exploration camp at Windfall Lake and was waiting to see when it might resume fieldwork.

"In the case of these fires here, most of the concern should probably go away within the week," Burzynski said, noting that after fires burn through an area the fire hazard tends to decrease in subsequent years.

Other exploration companies that said they stopped Quebec exploration fieldwork include Patriot Battery Metals Inc., which operates the Corvette lithium project; Wallbridge Mining Co. Ltd., which owns the Fenelon gold project; and Québec Nickel Corp., which has the Ducros project. Troilus Gold Corp. and Fury Gold Mines Ltd. also paused their Quebec exploration programs in areas under access restrictions.

Tough 2023

Government officials warned that 2023 is likely to be an especially tough year for forest fires across most of Canada.

Officials said Canada is receiving the brunt of two major climate patterns as La Nina effects wane and El Nino effects develop, leading to dryness that makes the country more prone to fires.

"Wildland fires are inevitable in Canada, but climate change is making the challenge more serious," the Northern Forestry Centre's Norton said.

The outlook for the rest of June was for much drier than normal conditions, according to federal government officials.

"The risk of fires is going to remain very high," Norton said.

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