Residents of the White Hills neighbourhood in Hammonds Plains are concerned about a lack of planning for the event of another wildfire.
They say with limited routes in and out, like many other neighbourhoods in Hammonds Plains and Tantallon, students at a middle school in the area are particularly vulnerable.
Julianna Davies’ daughter was a student at Madeline Symonds Middle School (MSMS) on White Hills Run when the Tantallon wildfire broke out in late May. The fire and evacuation of the area happened on a Sunday, but Davies wondered what might’ve happened if it had been a school day.
“I know there’s any number of drills they do from lockdowns to deal with active shooters to fire within the school … but I’ve never heard of anything to do with a fire outside of the school,” Davies said in a recent interview with the Halifax Examiner.
“And MSMS backs onto I don’t know how many hectares of forest. That’s the watershed for Halifax Water, and fire could easily have come around that side.”
Thanks to the efforts of firefighters and a change in conditions, the fire didn’t jump Pockwock Road.
What’s the plan to evacuate the school?
Davies is worried about next time. She asked the principal at MSMS about the plan to evacuate the school in the event of a wildfire. He didn’t share one.
“I don’t believe there is one,” Davies said. “But if there is a plan, what is it and how can you have a viable evacuation plan in a situation like this, without another exit at the back of the subdivision?”
Davies worries the school wouldn’t be able to recall school buses quickly enough in the middle of the day. And then even if it could, the buses would be stuck in traffic.
“We were on Pockwock in gridlock when the emergency alert finally came out for our area, so if the school wasn’t going to kick into action until an emergency alert went out, that was far, far, far too late,” Davies said.
“What I’m pushing for us to find out if there is a plan, and what is it, and does it make sense in light of what we know? I mean, this community is surrounded by forest.”
Councillor shares school concerns
In an interview with the Examiner, Hammonds Plains-St. Margaret’s Coun. Pam Lovelace said she shares Davies’ concerns about Madeline Symonds Middle School.
“My children attended that school and it was a concern for me because there was only one way out,” Lovelace said.
“As a parent, I wasn’t advised of what the plan was other than there were drills taking place at the school and the children were expected to go into their muster points on school property, but that doesn’t necessarily encompass all of the emergency concerns.”
She’s also concerned about daycares and long-term care facilities, Lovelace said.
“It seems like chaos will ensue if we don’t have a clear sense, of all parties involved, what the plan is to do an emergency evacuation with all of those very vulnerable groups,” Lovelace said.
Regional centre refuses to make emergency plan public
Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) spokesperson Lindsey Bunin said in an email there are 550 students enrolled at MSMS in the coming school year.
“Safety is priority for HRCE. Each school in HRCE has an Emergency Management Plan that is reviewed, updated and utilized annually. Fire evacuation procedures are practiced in the form of fire drills to ensure each school community is prepared in the event of an emergency,” Bunin said.
Those fire drills, Davies said, only cover fires inside the school. What she wants to know, and what the Examiner asked about, is the plan for fires outside the school.
“They aren’t going to send the kids out to the soccer field in the middle of a wildfire and leave it at that, surely?” Davies said.
The Examiner asked for the Emergency Management Plan for MSMS.
“We cannot share the EMP for MSMS publicly for a variety of confidentiality and privacy reasons. The internal plans are comprehensive and pertinent details are shared annually with families,” Bunin replied.
Parent hasn’t seen plan
Davies said she’s been a parent at the school since 2018. She said she never received “‘pertinent details’ from a school or HRCE Emergency Management Plan that would relate to an emergency evacuation off school property and out of the community in the case of a wildfire.”
There’s a fire safety policy posted on HRCE’s website, dated May 2016. It bares the logo of the Halifax Regional School Board, which the province dissolved five years ago, and says it’s to be reviewed every five years. Bunin couldn’t confirm whether that’s the current policy.
Asked about any requirements for schools to have updated evacuation and fire safety plans, Ross McLaren, spokesperson for the provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, said “each school has an emergency management plan and each school practices responses to emergency situations such as a fire or lockdown.”
“During an emergency, schools and school officials work closely with EMO, fire and police to ensure safety of staff and students,” McLaren said in an email.
“All aspects of the recent forest fires, including egress routes from Halifax subdivisions, are being examined by multiple levels of government.”
Egress issues make evacuation tricky
Rick Burns is the president of the White Hills Residents Association and a member of the Tantallon Wildfire Life Safety Coalition.
“Egress is the number one priority for the community,” Burns said in an interview.
“These communities have mostly been developed with one entrance, one exit.”
White Hills does connect to the Glen Arbour subdivision. But that exits onto Hammonds Plains Road, “which becomes its own bottleneck.”
“We really saw the the effects of that during the recent wildfire,” Burns said.
“The entire community was absolute gridlock. There’s a genuine safety concern in there and a lot of us feel that developers’ priorities have been put ahead of community safety.”
School, day care, long-term care facility in the area
Burns shared Davies’ concerns about the school, and noted there are other facilities in the area.
“White Hills contains Madeline Symonds Middle School, it contains the White Hills Long Term Care Center and it contains a childcare centre, a daycare just down the road and across the street from Madeline Symonds Middle School. So that corner of White Hills and Pockwock has a lot of vulnerable citizens in it,” he said.
Firefighters “bravely stood the line there in front of” the long-term care centre during the fire, Burns said. (There are fire hydrants along Pockwock Road, but none in the White Hills subdivision, according to Halifax Water’s map.)
“But as has been pointed out by [Davies], if this had happened at the middle of the day in the middle of the week while school was in, the buses aren’t located there, the street is absolute chaos, the ability to evacuate something like a middle school is just … it’s completely unprepared for,” Burns said.
“There’s not enough access, there’s not enough throughway, and that puts the residents in this community and the children of the community in a real vulnerable position. And it hasn’t been looked at or planned for up to this point.”
Longstanding road plans haven’t been implemented
Burns said the municipality has been planning for years to connect White Hills Run to Lucasville via Natura Drive and around McCabe Lake to Highway 101 via Margeson Drive.
“It always sounds like we’re working on it. It always sounds like it’s going to actually get developed and it never happens,” Davies said.
“We’ve had an emergency. Does the emergency need to be a larger emergency? Like we need action, we need action now. We need the city to stop dragging their heels and actually do the development work.”
Both Burns and Davies want to see egress routes created immediately.
What is HRM doing?
In June, Halifax regional council approved a motion from Lovelace for a staff report “outlining and prioritizing budgeted and non-budgeted initiatives” to help mitigate and manage wildfire risk to communities like White Hills.
“The Halifax Regional Municipality has been aware of significant egress and community evacuation needs for decades,” Lovelace wrote in her motion.
“Communities with limited egress and no piped water for firefighting have identified concerns to HRM and some residents have been working directly with HRM Emergency Management to develop neighborhood evacuation plans and advocating for the installation of more dry fire hydrants.”
Lovelace and Coun. Waye Mason are bringing another motion to regional council on Tuesday.
They’re calling for “a staff report regarding wildland urban interface preparedness strategies for Halifax.” That’s to include a list of communities “requiring addition of emergency evacuation routes and dry hydrants;” new standards “regarding secondary evacuation routes and emergency water sources” in development; and options within council’s control “for immediate action.”
Plans on the books for 18 years
Since the wildfire, HRM has created a working group with the provincial government and landholders, Lovelace said. That group is looking at where new roads could be built and which landowners are interested.
In the case of White Hills, Lovelace said they’re looking at the Margeson Drive connection.
“These are conversations that have been taking place for over a decade at the municipality. They’ve been aware of the wildfire threat,” Lovelace said.
Lovelace shared staff reports dating back to 2015 and 2016. In the 2016 report, engineers Paul V. Burgess and Peter Duncan wrote that the province originally planned a highway from Highway 102 to Hammonds Plains Road.
“When the regional roadway was abandoned by the Province in 2000, HRM adopted a shortened version and classified it as a collector road rather than a regional highway,” Burgess and Duncan wrote.
Halifax regional council adopted that version in 2005. After a 2007 environmental report recommended a realignment to protect the Sackville River watershed, HRM and the province struck a deal in 2009. The plan was for the two levels of government, along with developers, to build the road.
That extended portion of Margeson Drive would’ve intercepted the extension of White Hills Run. That never happened.
Emergency exits difficult when HRM doesn’t own land
HRM was able to act quickly to build new emergency exits from the Highland Park and Haliburton Hills communities. That’s because it already owned the land and there was a state of emergency in place, Lovelace said.
Lovelace moved for a staff report in June “on developing egress for Westwood Hills Subdivision in Upper Tantallon.”
But Lovelace said the process to work with landowners on creating a new roadway is time-consuming, unless there’s “a willing partner.”
“So, the willing partners are great they step up they say, ‘Yes, let’s subdivide. You can have this road through here, and I’m going to create lots and build my homes along this new road.’ … As soon as you open up land for development with the road, you end up with more housing, you end up with more structures and more buildings,” Lovelace said.
“I’m not saying that a bad thing. I think that people need to recognize, that’s what happens.”