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Three dead, 30 missing in fire at Canadian home for elderly

A massive fire at a Quebec residence for the elderly has killed at least three people, with 30 more missing, authorities said Thursday.

MONTREAL: A massive fire at a Quebec residence for the elderly has killed at least three people, with 30 more missing, authorities said Thursday.

The blaze at the home, which housed an estimated 50 to 60 elderly people in 52 units, broke out shortly after midnight.

"We could hear screaming from inside. The fire was intense, it was like a haystack on fire," Pascal Fillion, a neighbour who witnessed it, told Radio-Canada.

By 1am (0600 GMT), the building "was completely engulfed in flames, which were fanned by the wind," he said.

The home is located in the small town of L'Isle-Verte, which has a population of about 1,400 people.

The town's acting mayor, Ginette Caron, told a news conference that most of the residents of the home are reliant on caregivers.

They include elderly people needing "100 per cent care, almost all in wheelchairs, using walkers, or who aren't mobile at all, people suffering from the late stages of Alzheimers," she said.

"The types of services offered here are not found just anywhere. That's what we've also lost," she said.

Authorities said up to nine people were injured, one seriously, and were treated at nearby hospitals.

The Red Cross created a makeshift shelter at a local school where 16 people rescued from the inferno spent the night, according to a representative, Myriam Marotte, who spoke to local television.

A couple living in a house next door to the residence were also evacuated, police said, as four firefighting teams fought to extinguish the fire.

Quebec Provincial Police spokeswoman Ann Mathieu said: "30 people are missing, but it doesn't necessarily mean they are dead."

Several of the residents might have been away visiting family, or may have taken refuge elsewhere during the blaze and missed being counted, she explained.

Nonetheless, "it's a tragedy for the community and we can only fear that the death toll will rise," Gaetan Lelievre, a provincial minister, told French-language public broadcaster Radio-Canada.

Images broadcast on local television showed flames engulfing the wood-frame building, leaving only a solitary chimney standing among the ashes by morning.

An adjacent pharmacy and a community centre were also destroyed in the fire.

A witness said his grandmother "had called her son to come rescue her, but he didn't succeed. He tried to use a ladder to reach her, but she died right there on the balcony," he said, unable to hold back tears.

The blaze was fanned by frigid winds of up to 70 kilometres per hour, as the eastern section of North America endures a brutal cold snap after being blanketed by snow.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the injured and the families and friends of those lost in this morning's horrific fire in L'Isle-Verte," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is visiting the Middle East.

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois, in Davos, Switzerland, said she was "profoundly saddened by this tragedy" and vowed government help for the victims, their families and the community.

"It's a human tragedy," said Michel Lagace, prefect for the Rivière-du-Loup county, describing "the worst possible circumstances": a fire in the middle of the night in an elderly care home with minimal staff on hand.

Police said an investigation will follow.

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