The councillor representing residents from the Westwood Hills subdivision has requested a staff report on developing a secondary exit out of that community.
Westwood Hills was the first to receive a mandatory evacuation order as the HRM wildfire began on May 28.
“I’m not going to belabour the point. You’re all well aware that our chief administrative officer has moved quite quickly to create egress for Highland Park and Haliburton Hills, two subdivisions that have been looking for egress for decades,” Coun. Pamela Lovelace said during the meeting.
Both of those subdivisions are also in Lovelace’s district.
“Westwood Hills has been in talks — I believe since 2017/2018 — with staff on finding a back exit for this subdivision,” she said.
“Westwood Boulevard, many, many years ago when the subdivision was developed, was clear to be a very large main street. Not a dead end road eight, 10 kilometres in.”
During Tuesday night’s Halifax regional council meeting, councillors unanimously supported Lovelace’s motion. Several also expressed similar concerns about access out of communities in their own districts.
‘People can’t get out, they can’t get in’
Lovelace recalled how in early 2021, she moved a motion for a staff report on budgeting and creating community connector roads in the municipality. The motion was approved, and that report is expected later this year.
“Over the last four or five decades, subdivisions have been built off of Hammonds Plains Road. I call them balloons because they all direct traffic into Hammonds Plains Road and they’re not connected to one another,” Lovelace said.
“That’s problematic when situations like a wildfire come up. Or issues around even just having a single structure on fire and then people can’t get out, they can’t get in.”
Lovelace said this issue significantly impacts Hammonds Plains, and is a concern for Westwood Hills in particular.
“When these individuals go back into this subdivision — and I hope that they go back very soon and I know staff are working really hard to get these folks back in the subdivision — having a second exit or knowing that a second exit is being planned at the back of the subdivision is extremely important for the security and the safety and the well-being of those residents,” Lovelace said.
Coun. Lisa Blackburn said the issue of egress is also concerning for many residents in her district. She pointed to Springfield Lake and several subdivisions located off Beaver Bank Road in particular.
“Beaver Bank Road is very similar to Hammonds Plains Road. It’s one lane in, one lane out. And certainly the community is a little nervous and a little on edge after what has been taking place the last week,” Blackburn said.
“And definitely I have had more than a few people reach out asking for some of those egress roads to be plowed through.”
‘We’ve got problems in 100-year-old neighbourhoods’
The issue of egress isn’t limited to rural and suburban areas, Coun. Tim Outhit said.
“This is not just wildfires. I have people that get cut off in communities after a flood, after a hurricane, a snow storm when trees come down,” he said.
Outhit pointed to the “old Bedford” area in his district. Not new or built in the woods, he said there are “hundreds and hundreds” of homes and only one road. That road also happens to be in a designated floodplain.
“We’re going to have to at some point have a bit of a post-mortem on what we’ve experienced over the last week or so and how it might apply to other events and other areas as well,” Outhit said.
“It’s not accurate to say that this is only just in rural or suburban areas where trees are an issue. We’ve got problems in 100-yearold neighbourhoods.”
There were also egress concerns expressed by Fall River residents in the aftermath of a fire on Perrin Road last week. Coun. Cathy Deagle-Gammon said residents in the Miller Lake West subdivision were cut off for three hours. Nobody could get in or out.
“It’s a very long road down. Since this happened, of course, like many of us, I think I’ve gotten a good number of emails from people saying, ‘Oh, my land, what about us? We’ve only got one way in and one way out,’” Deagle-Gammon said.
“Some people have even said ‘We’ve got two,’ and I’m emailing them back saying, ‘You’re lucky you have two. There are a lot that only have one.’…I’m kind of anticipating that that December report might actually be a little bit more enhanced as a result of what’s happened this week.”
‘Changing climate in a world of fire’
In Lower Sackville, several long-established neighourhoods are facing the same problem. Coun. Paul Russell said there are 200 homes on Hallmark Avenue and only one way in. He also pointed to the Armoyan subdivision, where there are 150 homes and only one access road.
“They get stuck every single time that there is something happening on Old Sackville Road,” Russell said. “If we have something like we have had over the past week, we’re in trouble.”
Russell said there’s no option for residents in those particular subdivisions because the communities are built up, “there’s private land all over the place,” and there’s no way to create another access point.
“We really need to see a better way of designing new communities where this type of islanding of streets doesn’t exist,” Russell said.
Deputy Mayor Sam Austin said as people begin thinking about how easily this could happen in their own subdivisions, there are also bigger municipal planning pieces that need to be examined.
“Do we still have this pattern of development occurring and expanding on it and creating these conditions for development that’s just simply not appropriate for the places it’s in in our changing climate,” Austin asked.
In addition to constructing a few much-needed new roads to provide residents with more than one escape route, Austin said he wants to see a “more fulsome response.”
His hope is that any report also considers “the whole gamut” of what it means to live in a woodland area in a changing climate in a “world of fire.”
“We’re maybe just getting started, because Nova Scotia was always wet and we never really thought about these things,” Austin said. “But I think there’s some really big things as a municipality we have to think about.”
‘Winding roads and cul de sacs not planned for emergency response’
The municipality’s CAO Cathie O’Toole said just five weeks before the wildfire, HRM set up a community safety department. One of its tasks included working on municipal evacuation routes and evacuation strategies in general.
“The second thing is, under the business plan that council approved, one of the initiatives under fire this year is actually a wildfire strategy that would also look at risk reduction,” O’Toole told council. “So I anticipate that some of the things we can do from a planning and development perspective will arise through that work in the wildfire strategy.”
O’Toole said there will be a review of the wildfire incident. When completed, the plan is to discuss lessons learned with council during a committee of the whole meeting.
The events of the last week have raised awareness about the safety hazards when there’s only one way out, said Coun. Patty Cuttle. Like Austin, she wants to know more about how this issue is affecting planning.
“Every time we have a presentation from fire…they give us their response times and the challenges they have getting into some of the subdivisions and just simply the way they’re designed with winding roads and cul de sacs and not planned for emergency response,” Cuttle said.
“It’s either we need to invest in our fire services or we need to get a little bit wiser in how we design our subdivisions. This is a much bigger discussion and it affects a lot of things, a lot of different departments internally here.”