One hundred firefighters continued to work to extinguish a brushfire in Tantallon on Monday as thousands of people were out of their homes, unsure whether they had anything to return to.
Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum told reporters outside the St. Margaret’s Centre in Upper Tantallon on Monday that the fire had been burning since about 3:30 Sunday afternoon, starting near Juneberry Lane in the Westwood Hills subdivision.
“First arriving crews did discover a very large and fast-moving fire travelling through that subdivision,” Meldrum said. “And in fact traveled so significantly that we quickly escalated through second, third, fourth, and fifth alarms, which is the first use of a fifth alarm that many of us can remember in this community.”
The fire spread from Westwood toward Hammonds Plains and Pockwock roads.
With changing winds, coming from the north, Meldrum said the fire was moving back toward where it started in Westwood on Monday. Based on drone footage, it looked like there could still be “significant fire.” It’s still not under control.
“That was really fast, really hot fire yesterday,” Meldrum said. “There’s a lot of unburned fuel still in the areas the fire went through that can reignite and burn. We have a lot of work to do today, this week, for many days.”
There were no reports of missing people or injuries, but firefighters did rescue people.
“Numerous” homes were damaged or destroyed. Meldrum wouldn’t estimate how many, other than to say it’s “likely to be higher than 10.” Meldrum said the municipality and the province will conduct an inventory of damaged and lost structures in the coming days.
Pressed for a number during a media availability Monday afternoon, Premier Tim Houston said there were “dozens” of homes destroyed in the fire.
Meldrum said firefighters worked overnight to prevent further damage.
“We had 100 firefighters here on scene overnight, fighting spot fires, extinguishing structures that were on fire, and preventing more structures from being lost wherever we could,” Meldrum said.
Firefighters from West Hants, Uniacke, Windsor, Brooklyn, the provincial Department of Natural Resources, and the Department of National Defence joined those from Halifax. They held the fire from crossing Hammonds Plains Road in the east and Pockwock Road to the north, Meldrum said. There were 30 or more vehicles on site, along with two helicopters, and two Newfoundland-based air tankers.
Twenty Department of Natural Resources firefighters recently sent to the Northwest Territories have been recalled, according to Scott Tingley, the department’s forest protection manager.
Meldrum said firefighters worked for eight hours or more Sunday afternoon into the night.
“That’s not our preference. We like firefighters to work for four hours, we bring them in, make sure they get nutrition, hydration, a little bit of rest, and then we get them out there for another cycle,” Meldrum said.
Capt. Brett Tetanish, with the Brooklyn Volunteer Fire Department, told reporters it was the worst fire he’d ever worked on.
“You don’t see fires like this in Nova Scotia. You see them in Alberta,” he said.
“Driving in last night was just surreal, driving on Hammonds Plains Road with fire on both sides of the road, structures on fire, cars abandoned and burnt in the middle of the road.”
Tetanish said he didn’t want to risk of any his crew, and they were able to safely save several structures. He said it was “an emotional roller coaster.”
“But I have a home to go to, and there’s a lot of people that don’t,” he said.
16,000 out of their homes to receive $500
Meldrum said on Monday morning it was too early to say how the fire started, or how big it was. The Department of Natural Resources was surveying the fire from the sky to estimate its size, and on Monday afternoon, Tingley said the fire was 780 hectares.
In terms of the scale of the evacuation, the Tantallon fire is much larger than one in the Herring Cove area in 2009. During that fire, Meldrum said 5,000 were told to leave their homes.
On Monday, Meldrum said approximately 14,000 people were out of their homes. Mayor Mike Savage later said there were more than 16,000 people displaced. They’re from the Westwood subdivision in Upper Tantallon; the Whitehills, Highland Park, Yankeetown, Haliburton Hills, and Glen Arbour subdivisions in Hammonds Plains; along the Pockwock Road; and along Lucasville Road to Sackville Drive.
Meldrum asked people not to come back to the area.
“If you’re not here, don’t come here. This is not a safe place. There is active fire here, there is smoke obscuring the roads,” Meldrum said.
Meldrum couldn’t estimate when people would be allowed back to their homes, or what’s left of them.
“This is difficult, and residents must be prepared to remain out of their homes for several days, at least, to come,” Meldrum said.
Houston announced people evacuated will receive $500 from the provincial government through the Red Cross, with details to come on Tuesday.
The province also announced it’s covering mileage expenses for volunteer firefighters willing to travel within the province.
Red Cross set up at evacuation centre
The municipality set up comfort centres at the Black Point and Area Community Centre and the Beaver Bank Kinsac Community Centre, and an evacuation centre at the Canada Games Centre.
Ancel Langille is the senior manager for emergency management with the Canadian Red Cross in Nova Scotia. He said once they knew the evacuation took place, their partners reached out and asked them to open a shelter at the Canada Games Centre.
“By 10:30, we were able to have people laying down in a cot,” Langille said.
Langille said there were about 10 households at the centre on Sunday night. Some of those people are still at the centre, while others are out and about.
Besides a place to stay, Salvation Army is offering food and St. John’s Ambulance is providing higher-end medical care, if needed.
Langille said they will continue to assess the situation and bring in any other needs. Langille said there are seven staff and volunteers at the centre now and more staff will work on a rotation of three eight-hour shifts.
“If people don’t have a place to sleep, they are more than welcome to come here, and we will try to make them as comfortable as possible.”
Evacuees concerned about communication
Betty Hannom and Bernard Crilley made their way to the Canada Games Centre from their apartment on Appaloosa Run in Hammonds Plains about 10pm Sunday. Crilley said he didn’t think the fire was making its way in their direction.
“There was no smoke in our area or anything like that. I think they were afraid it would jump Hammonds Plains Road and cut people off,” Crilley said.
Crilley said he was frustrated with the lack of information on Sunday night about what to do. While Hannom has a Facebook account, they were relying on other sources to find out more. Crilley said today the workers at the evacuation centre were providing information.
“The only really good information that we had last night came over CBC radio and even then it wasn’t the greatest because they kept saying there were evacuation centres, but they weren’t saying where they were or what was available,” Crilley said.
They learned about the Canada Games Centre evacuation centre from their daughter.
“There were a bunch of police cars guiding us where to go,” Hannom said.
“Most of the people were probably already evacuated. We were probably the last ones who came out,” Crilley added. “Other than that we didn’t know where to go. We had absolutely no idea where to go or what to do. We tried hotels on the way here and couldn’t get a room. It’s all full, it’s all packed.”
Hannom, who was wrapped in a Red Cross blanket during the interview with the Examiner, said she left her medications at home and her sciatic nerve issue is acting up. Meanwhile, Crilley is allergic to dogs and has celiac disease. This evacuation centre is taking in pets as well. The couple said they were given food, blankets, and cots to sleep on, and they were told there would be a hot lunch.
“I’m grateful with the people at Red Cross who have been doing this,” Crilley said. “They have been very kind, very good. They did everything that could to help us. I certainly appreciate that. I’m glad this place opened up, but, like I say, the lack of information, especially when we were asked to get out, not knowing where to go, what to do.”
In the meantime, Hannom and Crilley just wait to learn more.
“I was told a few moments ago it may be a few days,” Hannom said.
Where to take pets to shelter
Catherine Stevens is the communications director with the Disaster Animal Response Team of Nova Scotia. They work with the Canadian Red Cross and are the only animal organization in the country that has a memorandum of understanding with the Canadian Red Cross in Nova Scotia. Stevens said the shelter for pets was set up at the Canada Games Centre the same time the comfort centre was opened Sunday night.
Stevens said some homeowners don’t want to leave their homes without their pets and not all shelters can take in animals.
“Our first responders do a great job of keeping everybody safe, so you know in the province of Nova Scotia you can evacuate with your pet, you, your family, and your pet,” Stevens said. “You can come here, the Red Cross will take care of you, they will send you to us and then we will take care of your pet and bring it from harm to home.”
Right now, many of the people who stayed here have their pets outside, but Stevens said she is getting calls from people who can’t find a place for their pets because many hotels are full.
“People will be bringing more pets here because they have no place to take them,” Stevens said.
They had two dogs last night. They accept dogs, cats, reptiles, and birds, as well as “pocket” pets, including hamsters. They also work with other local animal organizations such as the Nova Scotia Ferret Association, which may be able to foster pets that can’t stay in a shelter.
“Sometimes a busy environment isn’t good for certain animals,” Stevens said.
Click here to visit our Nova Scotia wildfires resource page.