During a media briefing Thursday afternoon, HRM officials provided an update on the municipality’s progress in lifting evacuation orders and on its recovery phase efforts. 

“We want to let people know everything that we know. We want to let people know the things that we don’t know,” Mayor Mike Savage said. “Return and recovery efforts represent their own massive challenges.”

Savage said the majority of the 4,100 residents who remain evacuated will likely be able to return to their homes on Friday. They’ll be advised via an alert.

Those whose properties are in the area of “significant impact” must wait longer.

Erica Fleck, HRM’s director of emergency management, said the municipality is setting up a community hub where returning residents can attend in groups or individually to ask questions. She said smoke kits will be handed out to those returning in the next day or two. Potable water containers and portable water sources will also be available. 

Team Rubicon to help residents sift for valuables

Fleck also announced HRM’s partnership with Team Rubicon, a non-government organization that specializes in disaster response.

While an anticipated 50 to 60 volunteers will arrive next weekend, she said an advance party will be on the ground Sunday.

The most directly impacted residents whose homes were destroyed or significantly damaged will be invited to attend an upcoming community meeting about that partnership and what it entails.

“Team Rubicon will assist all of those homeowners in being able to sift through and look for prized possessions that may have survived the fire, and be able to do so in a safe way,” Fleck said. 

“So they will have complete hazmat suits. They are properly trained, and they will work directly with the homeowners if the homeowners want.”

Fleck said they were receiving many questions about fencing in the areas most significantly impacted by the fires. She explained that the fire act requires it be installed around damaged and destroyed houses.

“It’s for safety. It’s not the homeowner’s responsibility. The city is doing that in conjunction with insurance companies, with Insurance Bureau of Canada, and other agencies,” Fleck said. 

“The city is constructing those currently, and we will continue to do so over the next few days until they are all complete for any structure that was destroyed or (had) major damage.”

Several big safety risks

In the area most significantly impacted (the “dark orange” areas in Phase 3 of HRM’s fire evacuation map), Fleck said there were fuel spills, burned down partial structures, and roads that remain impassable. She said there are still several “big safety risks” in that zone. 

“Right now, we’re trying to fine tune them and basically make a cordon around those areas to let people go back when it’s safe to do so,” Fleck said. 

“The larger areas are a bit easier. As we get down to the nitty gritty, we have to take it street by street, house by house, to really make sure that we’re not sending people into an unsafe environment.” 

‘No better estimate right now’

Residents whose properties are in that so-called no-go zone continue to wait for word on when they can get onsite. While “10 days” continues to be the estimate on HRM’s website, Fleck was unable to provide a more definitive timeline.

“There is no better estimate right now… There’s so many details to work through with this, getting people in there safely,” she said. 

Describing this latest and third phase as “a bit of a moving target,” Fleck said if they can get people in sooner and safely, they will. 

“But what we do know is the area of significant impact, i.e. the dark orange zones, will still be some days from now,” she said.

The municipality is also fielding multiple questions about security in the most severely impacted area. Fleck assured residents that monitoring continues to be provided by RCMP and contracted security on a 24/7 basis.

She said it was also important to note that many residents in the most significantly impacted area were struggling with “survivor guilt.” She said just because someone’s home is still standing, it doesn’t mean they’re not affected. 

“(There’s) a lot of mental trauma with children, pets, neighbours, the devastation across your community. That is something that we are looking at as well,” Fleck said. 

“When we do set up the community hub, we will have mental health resources. And also with Team Rubicon when they come in with the homeowners, when we do the sifting process to look for those valuables, we will have mental health supports available as well.”

Lots of calls but few illegal burns

The councillor for the area, Pamela Lovelace, said the top issue brought to her by residents in the wildfire affected area is regarding the communication from officials. 

“We are doing everything in our power to make sure that you have the information available to you that you’re looking for,” Lovelace said. “When we don’t have access to the information, we try to find it.”

In response to a question about how many illegal burn calls Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency responded to in recent days, Chief Ken Stuebing said they’ve received “many.”

But Stuebing cautioned that few resulted in actual follow-up where charges are being pursued. 

Obviously, this is a sensitive subject right now, and rightly so. We are getting many, many calls to investigate what appears to be smoke or visible flame. Sometimes that flame is from a propane appliance, which is totally allowed under the no burn by law providing you are using it as per manufacturer’s instructions. 

We’ve only had a small amount of illegal burns where we’re pursuing charges. So we are responding. Last night, for example, I think it was six calls. The previous night it was 10 to 12 calls. But a very, very small percentage of those are actually ones that will have follow up.

The mayor also took the opportunity to address why the media was allowed inside the evacuation zone earlier this week. He said this was a frequently asked question.

Probably (last) Tuesday or Wednesday, right here, we were asked why media weren’t allowed to go in at that point in time. And I recognize the importance of the media in getting the message out. But we also wanted to make sure that people had a chance to see the homes themselves before it was widely circulated. 

Unfortunately, a lot of images were sent out through a number of channels, so people found out that their houses were destroyed through channels other than direct official channels. But we tried to do everything we could to make sure that people had an opportunity to go in and see their property and their community…We did try to make sure that people in the area got to see firsthand before there were reports in the media.

Yvette d’Entremont is a bilingual (English/French) journalist and editor who enjoys covering health, science, research, and education.

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