With four out of Nova Scotia’s five wildfires contained or under control as of Sunday afternoon, the Highway 103 corridor in Shelburne County is reopening at 10am Monday, and the ban on activity and travel in the woods is being lifted at 12:01am.

But despite the positive news, a wildfire continues to burn out of control in Barrington Lake. During a Sunday afternoon briefing with reporters, officials said there’s still a lot of work ahead.

“The fire situation in our province still remains very serious. We have five fires that continue to burn. One is still out of control,” Premier Tim Houston said. 

“But for the first time in almost a week, there was definitely some relief yesterday and today. The weather’s supporting our spectacular effort from our firefighting teams.”

Changes in the weather and overall fire situation led the province to lift the activity and travel ban in the woods in all but the evacuated areas. The premier did issue a plea to anyone going into the woods.

“Don’t be stupid. Be safe. Be fire smart. Don’t flick a dart, don’t have a bonfire, don’t do something that can start a fire,” Houston said. “Be responsible and be mindful of the conditions across the province.”

The fire ban remains in place, and the $25,000 fine is still in effect for anyone who ignores it.

“Be smart as we move forward. We’re a changed province after these fires in many ways,” Houston said. “Emotional scars run deep and will take time. The financial scars run deep and will take time.”

Extensive amount of work left to do

The Tantallon and Hammonds Plains area wildfires are now 100% contained and considered under control. But Dave Steeves, a technician of forest resources with the Department of Natural Resources, said the 950 hectare Tantallon wildfire is still not extinguished.

“There is still an extensive amount of work for our firefighters left to do. Given the many variables that our men and women on the ground faced this week, we’re going to take every measure possible to ensure that this is extinguished,” Steeves said. “So, declaring this fire out will likely take some time yet, and it won’t be done until our command team on the ground is fully satisfied with the situation.”

Steeves said their main objective on Sunday was to continue extinguishing hotspots around homes in the area. Firefighters were going from property to property looking for issues and areas of concern.

“Like I said before, things are wet, but just because they’re wet does not mean that we are totally finished in this endeavour,” Steeves said. 

‘We know they want to go home’

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said the municipality was making “good progress” shrinking the evacuation zone. About 10 minutes before the 3pm briefing began, an emergency alert was issued advising that yet another evacuation order had been lifted. 

The latest evacuation order rescinded was for Glen Arbour subdivision and the area east of Stillwater Lake and south of Hammonds Plains Road. Savage said anyone returning to their homes in those areas will encounter a checkpoint and need to show identification. 

Savage reminded people that in addition to residents who lost homes, thousands of their neighbours in the most heavily impacted areas remain under an evacuation order. Despite being safe from a fire perspective, he said there are other concerns. 

“We know they want to go home,” Savage said, adding that work with multiple partners is currently underway assessing for a number of hazards. 

“That could include things like contaminated drinking water or soil, air quality issues, smoke damage, power hazards, and other dangers, for example, debris,” Savage said. 

“It’s not easy to tell people this, but you must be prepared to be out for a number of days yet in those areas.”

Solid waste schedules are also being adjusted to account for things like spoiled food. Further information is available on HRM’s website. Additional work is also underway for those who lost their homes to address hazards on their properties before they can gain access. 

“It’s a devastating thing to lose a home, and we will work with the province, the feds, and anybody else toward disaster relief and housing options,” Savage said. 

Two new exits under construction

Savage said he’s working with provincial and federal government counterparts to provide assistance for those who’ve lost homes. While it will be provincially-led, he said HRM will be “very much part of it” because people need places to go. 

“As well as making sure that it’s a safe environment for people to go back into, we’re going to have to take a look at where people are going to live,” Savage said. 

“And keep in mind also that there’s close to 1,000 people on a list who don’t have appropriate housing right now, and they can’t get lost in that discussion either.”

Within the area impacted by the fires, Savage said the municipality exercised its local state of emergency powers to build two permanent, gravel-gated emergency exits on municipal land. Those will provide additional travel options for residents in case of future emergencies. 

A clearing from the Haliburton Hills subdivision to connect Buckingham Drive to Highway 103 is now under construction. Savage said work on a clearing from the Highland Park subdivision from the end of Sylvania Terrace to Hammonds Plains Road will begin in the coming days. 

“Our planning and development processes now include public safety as a priority in terms of getting people in and out of developments. And a number of these communities which have been in place for a long time probably need more support than they have in terms of getting out,” Savage said. 

“We’re just very glad that nobody was hurt. We don’t think that anybody was killed. There’s no reports of that. And every development that we now look at is very much connected with our fire and emergency preparedness officials to make sure that we have enough ways to get in and out of all of our communities.”

‘The nature of fighting fires is changing’

Last week, HRM asked the federal government for portable potable water trailers to provide water to neighbourhoods as private wells are being tested for contaminants. HRM’s director of emergency management, Erica Fleck, said Ottawa has permitted the municipality to use heavy urban search and rescue funding for the purchase of potable water trailers. She expected those to be in place in the coming days. 

Savage added that what they require from the federal government isn’t confined to the Tantallon/Hammonds Plains area wildfires. 

“We have to be prepared. It is June 4, and with climate changing, we’re going to need things like brush trucks and things like that on a more regular basis,” Savage said. 

“So, we will continue to have those conversations and we appreciate the help we’ve been given. But I think we all understand, and every fire department, that the nature of fighting fires is changing and it’s going to have to be accelerated.”

Reopening of Highway 103 corridor

The Barrington Lake wildfire in Shelburne County continued to burn out of control on Sunday, with 24,980 total hectares involved. Dave Rockwood, public information officer for the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables (DNRR) in Shelburne, offered an update from that area. 

He noted that the burnt bridge on the Port Clyde Road is being barricaded. A temporary structure is planned to link up that roadway in “the next week or so.”

During Sunday afternoon’s briefing, Rockwood was also alerted to the reopening of parts of the Highway 103 corridor that had been closed due to the wildfire. He said as of 10am Monday, vehicles can access previously closed portions of the roadway accompanied by escort vehicles.

“There’s a lot of business, a lot of industry down here, and a lot of just people in general rely on that road,” Rockwood said. “We’re really happy that at 10:00 tomorrow morning that’s going to be open and running.”

However, there will be no access permitted off the main roadway. Rockwood said roads in that area will include security to ensure people remain on the actual highway. 

“That’s for the public safety, the firefighters’ safety, and for the individuals that have lost homes that have not been notified yet,” Rockwood said. “Because we’re still in the process of collecting that data so that they can find out from the appropriate agencies and not from some random individual driving through.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Warden Eddie Nickerson with the Municipality of the District of Barrington expressed his relief that the HRM wildfires were under control. He said this was the news they were “hoping to hear and receive” in their own communities in the coming days.

Nickerson noted one area of concern on Sunday was the municipality’s construction and demolition debris disposal site on Highway 103. He said work was underway to address an active underground fire, and additional resources were being brought in to contain it. He also reminded residents throughout Shelburne County of the ongoing need to be prepared to evacuate. 

The warden for the Municipality of the District of Shelburne said she was “cautiously optimistic” that fires in her region will also be contained in the coming days. 

“We aren’t there yet, but I’m confident in the work of the firefighters and support personnel on the ground that we will get there,” Penny Smith said during the briefing.

Smith also said provincial assessors are currently trying to determine the status of properties and infrastructure in the impacted areas. Once they have assessment information, they expect to begin communicating with property owners, possibly as early as June 6.  

“But it is important to remember that assessments take time and need to be done with safety as a top priority,” Smith said. “With Barrington Lake being the only out of control fire left in the province, work is underway on planning the next steps for our communities.”

‘We still have plenty of summer ahead of us’

Including last year, the five-year average for hectares burned in Nova Scotia by fire is 940 hectares. Scott Tingley, DNRR’s manager of forest protection, said that number included the “unusually large” 3,000 hectare fire last year.

“When you take that fire out of the last five years, on average we burn about 320 hectares for about 135 fires,” Tingley explained. 

“So, just for some context for where we’re at in this season, it’s only the beginning of June. We do still have plenty of summer ahead of us. As a province and as a country, we’re all in the same mindset,” he said.

“We’re certainly welcoming the rain, but we’re not letting our guard down. There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Shelburne County schools remain closed on Monday and Tuesday. In HRM, Bay View High School, Hammonds Plains Consolidated, Kingswood Elementary School, and Madeline Symonds Middle School are all closed on Monday.

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

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  1. During the Shelburne fire (I learned from watching a flight tracker website) small attack aircraft from NB were having to transit to Digby and Yarmouth airfields to get refilled with water as there is no functional airfield from Greenfield in Queens County all the way to Yarmouth.
    Historically one was maintained in Indian Fields in Shelburne County which in this case would have been no closer to the fire than Yarmouth.
    Presumably there would have been some advantage to not having to make such a long journeys to refill.