Weather not cooperating on fifth day of fighting major wildfires in Nova Scotia
June 1, 2023 By Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press
HALIFAX — Municipal officials in Halifax have begun breaking the news to residents whose homes were lost to a fast-moving wildfire after they were evacuated earlier this week from subdivisions northwest of the city.
Deputy fire Chief David Meldrum said Thursday an audit of damaged and destroyed properties had been completed, but he could not provide the latest numbers.
Fire officials earlier said 200 structures, including 151 houses, have been claimed by the fire, which is one of two major wildfires that have been burning out of control in Nova Scotia since the weekend. In total, 21,000 people have been forced from their homes — 16,000 of them in the Halifax area.
On Thursday, fire officials said they were worried the hot, dry weather could lead to a phenomenon known as “crossover.”
Wildfires can become extreme events when the temperature rises above 30 C, humidity dips below 30 per cent and wind speeds top 30 kilometres per hour — and that’s exactly what was expected to happen Thursday.
Still, fire officials announced that 50 per cent fire near Halifax had been contained, saying it had not grown since Wednesday.
Despite that good news, officials said firefighters were dealing with parched conditions, rising temperatures and mounting wind speeds that make for an unstable environment for wildfires.
“We are far from being out of the woods,” David Steeves, a forest resources technician with Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, told a briefing at a command post in Upper Tantallon, N.S.
“We are still dealing with a very dangerous and volatile situation… We are looking at possibly fast and aggressive spread rates.”
Aside from the Halifax-area wildfire, a much larger fire in southwestern Nova Scotia has forced about 5,000 people from their homes in Shelburne County. That fire had grown to more than 180 square kilometres, making it one of the largest wildfires ever recorded in the province. It has consumed about 50 homes and cottages.
In the town of Shelburne, all in-patients in the Roseway Hospital have been moved to other facilities and the hospital has been closed as a precaution.
On Wednesday, fire officials reported seeing 300-foot flames at the head of this fire northwest of Barrington, N.S.
Natural Resources Minister Tory Rushton said following a cabinet meeting Thursday that a “major aerial attack” was being mounted on the Shelburne County fire. Rushton said helicopters and water bombers were being used.
“We are trying to get it (the fire) into a condition where firefighters with boots on the ground can actually get in and start attacking hot spots,” he said. “But right now this is a very active fire and we cannot risk putting firefighters at the head of this.”
The minister said six more water bombers would be flying in from Colorado on Friday and over the weekend. He said an unspecified number of firefighters from the U.S. would also be helping, while next week a group of firefighters from Costa Rica would also be arriving in the province.
As well, there were two other much smaller fires burning out of control. Cooler temperatures and steady rain aren’t expected until late Friday.
Though the Atlantic region is better known for its soggy weather in the spring, Nova Scotia has recorded 201 wildfires this season, 28 of them in the past week alone. Those fires have so far burned 190 square kilometres of land.
Much of the province experienced a very mild winter with very little snowfall, and there hasn’t been any significant rainfall in the past 12 days. As well, April was the driest month on record at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport.
Another contributing factor has been the rapid growth of Halifax, which has experienced a building boom in recent years. The result has been the construction of large subdivisions on the outskirts of Atlantic Canada’s largest city, where the backdrop is sprawling woodlands.
In Ottawa, federal officials announced that more than 300 firefighters from the United States and South Africa are heading to Canada to battle an unprecedented wildfire season.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to ask for help.
In a letter released Wednesday, Houston said the province was looking for more water bombers and helicopters, and he submitted formal requests for firefighting foam, 5,000 hoses, four-wheel-drive trucks and assistance in establishing a base camp for 250 firefighters.
Houston also wants advance access to the federal Disaster Financial Assistance Program, which typically does not kick in until the province has spent more than $3 million on disaster relief.
Ottawa announced Thursday it would act on Nova Scotia’s plea for help, and the Canadian Armed Forces is preparing to provide extensive support, including help with logistics and resources. Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said that help would start arriving “hopefully” by the end of the day.
Houston was asked about a federal response that didn’t specifically address the list of requests sent Wednesday.
“The asks are known at the highest levels of government and nobody can say that they are not known,” he said. “So I would urge them to act on those.”
The premier said he learned from the province’s experience with post-tropical storm Fiona last fall that dealing with Ottawa can get bogged down in bureaucracy.
“The prime minister looked me in the eyes at one point and said that Nova Scotia didn’t fill out the proper forms, and that’s why the support hadn’t come as quickly,” he said about talks held after the storm. “With that experience in mind, I was not willing to leave any room for a repeat when people’s houses were literally burning.”
Houston said he didn’t have details about how many Canadian Armed Forces personnel would be coming to Nova Scotia or on where they would be used.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2023.
With files by Keith Doucette
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