You can taste the smoke in Port Joli, about 40 kilometres east of the town of Shelburne on Highway 103.  

Although you can’t see smoke or flames from the coastal South Shore town, it smells as if all of Shelburne County is on fire. More than 17,000 hectares — or about 170 square kilometres* to the west of Shelburne — is burning out of control. The fire, which in the absence of spring rain and with gusty southwest winds, has fueled to become the largest wildfire in Nova Scotia’s history. This fire is expected to spread further with no rain expected before Friday night. 

‘It’s too hot on the ground’

“Please send more water bombers; more air support,” said Andy Blackmer, a volunteer firefighter in Shelburne County with 30 years’ experience. “It’s the only thing that will make a difference right now. It’s too hot on the ground and there is too much fire.”  

There are 70 firefighters from the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables and more than 40 volunteer and municipal firefighters fighting this fire. One helicopter, two water bombers from Newfoundland and Labrador, and eight airplanes from New Brunswick are also on the scene. The airplanes disperse a mixture of water and fire retardant.

The Sandy Point lighthouse, which is 15 kilometres outside the town of Shelburne, looks as if it is surrounded by fog. But that’s smoke from across the bay at Gunning Cove and the fire could be a hundred kilometres away, or much closer, depending on the wind direction.  

A white lighthouse with a red roof stands on a point of land jutting out into the ocean. There is a haze of smoke in the faint blue sky and a rocky beach in the foreground.
A haze of smoke from the Barrington Lake/Shelburne County wildfire hangs over the Sandy Point lighthouse. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Residents anxious to get home

The Shelburne fire hall at 63 King St., where Blackmer and other volunteers are waiting to be re-deployed, also includes a huge community hall suitable for receptions and dances. Since Sunday night, that hall has been turned into a comfort centre with cots and donated food to assist people ordered to evacuate from the west and south of the town. That includes villages on the next peninsula or those who had to flee the Clyde River area in the municipal district of Barrington. The Red Cross is on hand to register people who have been evacuated and who qualify to receive a $500 cheque from the provincial government to assist with expenses. 

“The Red Cross have been wonderful,” said Roseanne Goulden, a feisty senior who uses a walker to get around. “But $500 seems almost an insult. I don’t know whether our house in Churchover [near Gunning Cove] is still standing. I do know the power is off and I left two freezers full of food.” 

“I know at least one person who has refused to go. My daughter called and said ‘Mom, get out’ while I was still packing up pictures of the grandchildren.” 

That was on Monday. 

“I’m still anxious and upset,” Goulden said. “We don’t know when my husband and I will be able to go home. We came to Shelburne because we had no place to go. A complete stranger has taken us in and two other people as well. I can’t believe it! But I don’t know how long she will put up with us.”      

Cots covered in green fabric and with white pillows and a white blanket are set up in a large community hall.
Cots at set up at the Shelburne fire hall for evacuees. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Goulden is out in the parking lot beside the fire hall making friends with a couple from Clyde River who were evacuated on Sunday — the Shelburne fire started Saturday near Barrington Lake. The Dares have moved in with family in Shelburne. Their son, Travis, who is trained as a volunteer firefighter, made the trip from Ontario in 24 hours hoping he could help. So far, he said, that hasn’t happened and he is unclear about what type of “mutual aid” is being considered and whether it’s now too late to make any appreciable difference. 

A map showing the southwestern part of Nova Scotia including the location of the Barrington Lake wildfire marked with a red flame icon.
A map of the location of the Barrington Lake Fire. Credit: Google maps

Don Dares says the person who arrived to get them out of their house put yellow tape around it to mark the property as vacated. Trying to figure out who got out and who stayed behind in areas that are still at risk of being burned out is an ongoing challenge for Red Cross and EMO officials. The areas north of Shelburne and Barrington are large and sparsely populated with limited cellphone coverage. 

600 homes, 2,000 people evacuted

On Tuesday, RCMP operations officer Sue Brown estimated 600 homes and about 2,000 people had been evacuated in Shelburne County. Residents of the Roseway Manor nursing home in Shelburne were also moved because of air quality concerns as temperatures heat up.  

When talking to people who are out of their homes, it seems as if everyone has a friend who is a volunteer firefighter. Unofficial sightings by these friends have given both Dares and Goulden hope their homes are not among the 30 to 40 damaged by the Shelburne wildfire. That estimate was mentioned by Natural Resources Minister Tory Rushton on CBC Radio this morning, but there are no official numbers at this point.

A white man with grey hair and beard and wearing a grey baseball hat, red shirt, and jeans stands in a grassy field with trees and a tent in the background.
John Adams evacuated from Ingomar and is now camping at Shelburne County Exhibition grounds. Credit: Jennifer Henderson

Ingomar resident and volunteer fireman John Adams said he believes his home is still standing after being forced to leave in a hurry on Sunday. Adams said the fire moved so fast it jumped the road near Round Bay and scorched the side of his brother’s truck.

Adams has been living in a tent with his two dogs on the Shelburne County Exhibition grounds behind the Shelburne fire hall. He plans to continue to camp there this week. The grounds are open to displaced residents for tenting and washrooms and food are available from the fire hall.  

‘Why is there fire?’

The huge fire led to an unexpected change of plan for Karl-Otto Englert and his wife. They arrived from Heidelberg, Germany to visit friends who live in Northeast Harbour, at the tip of the peninsula directly south of Birchtown. But their hosts had been evacuated and so the two couples spent last night in a hotel.  

“Why is there fire?” asked the German visitors. “We see this in Europe, in Spain, and France, late in the summer. Why here?” 

It’s not summer yet, although it feels like it. Ironically, you can’t be outdoors enjoying the warm weather when the air tastes of smoke and you know the woods and the planet ought not be burning.   

* We included an incorrect calculation in this story. That figure has been updated. We apologize for the error.

Click here to visit our Nova Scotia wildfires resource page.

Jennifer Henderson is a freelance journalist and retired CBC News reporter.

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