Two years ago, Halifax Fire told the Halifax Auditor General that three subdivisions “were built without appropriate fire safety specifications, such as inadequate water sources to fight fires.”

All three subdivisions — Indigo Shores, Westwood Hills, and White Hills — were evacuated Sunday night as the Tantallon fire bore down upon them.

The fire started in Westwood Hills. Monday evening, the city announced that “200 homes or structures have been damaged” in the entire Tantallon fire zone, but it’s currently unknown how many structures in the three subdivisions were affected.

The September 2021 report from Auditor General Evangeline Colman-Sadd focused primarily on Halifax Fire’s fire inspection program. One section of the report, however, is subtitled “Other Audit Matters — Poor Communication between Halifax Fire, and Planning and Development.” It reads:

Halifax Fire management told us certain subdivisions were built without appropriate fire safety specifications, such as inadequate water sources to fight fires. Specific subdivisions of concern include: Indigo Shores Subdivision in Middle Sackville, Westwood Hills Subdivision in Upper Tantallon and White Hills Subdivision in Hammond Plains.

Planning and Development management told us they were not made aware of these concerns. They also said they seek Halifax Fire’s input, but do not require it. The expectation is that Halifax Fire will communicate whether they want to be involved in the review of a subdivision application.

We reviewed the initial approvals of these subdivisions. In two cases there was evidence the application was provided to Halifax Fire for review but only one had documentation of Halifax Fire’s feedback. A Halifax Fire staff member involved in the review of the Indigo Shores Subdivision in 2005 expressed concern around the lack of water resources and suggested considering a dry hydrant. However, there is no documentation indicating why this was not a requirement for the subdivision.

In our 2018 audit of Development approvals, we noted there was no policy to determine which HRM business units should be involved in reviewing planning applications.

Halifax Fire senior management told us inadequate water sources are being addressed through a capital project to install and maintain dry fire hydrants in subdivisions that require them. However, there is no list with plans for when and where dry hydrants will be installed. Management provided a list of ten areas where this is an issue but told us there are many more.

A dry hydrant is a fire hydrant that isn’t connected to the city’s water mains — these subdivisions are not serviced by Halifax Water — but rather has a pipe that leads to one of the lakes in the area. A fire truck can draw water directly out of the lake.*

Related to subdivision approval and dry hydrants, the Auditor General made two recommendations.

Recommendation #13 suggested that “HRFE [Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency] should work with Planning and Development to address concerns regarding HRFE’s involvement in planning applications.”

Halifax Fire agreed to that recommendation and the city adopted an action plan to implement it, as follows:

1. Request resources for a Plans Examination Specialist to work with Planning and Development to provide input on planning applications.
2. Plans Examination Specialist (if approved) to liaise with P&D staff and provide guidance and input on revisions to municipal engineering and planning standards. 

It looks like that Plans Examiner Specialist position was included in the 2022 budget for Halifax Fire. Council approved four new full-time equivalent positions “for specialist positions to address concerns raised in the Auditor General’s Fire Prevention report.”

The second recommendation, #14, was that “HRFE should develop a complete list of dry hydrant needs and determine how it will prioritize capital funding for these.”

Halifax Fire agreed to that recommendation as well, and the action plan said it would be implemented by:

1. Prevention staff to work with Operations and Performance and Safety divisions to identify a complete list of dry hydrant needs.
2. Determine how to prioritize capital funding for the maintenance and installation of dry hydrants.

While the city outlined the problem and a solution to it, it’s unclear whether any dry hydrants were installed in the three subdivisions before this week’s fire.

We’ll update this article with comment from officials, should we get it.

* This article has been revised to better describe a dry hydrant.

Click here to visit our Nova Scotia wildfires resource page.

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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  1. Dry hydrants should have been required and maybe should be required in the future before any home is sold in a development. But since this fire is partly a result of Nova Scotia being warmer and dryer due to climate change, maybe we ought to be considering what other measures should be required before homes in new developments may be sold or occupied. For example, if lakes and aquifers have less water, dry hydrants may not be enough. Perhaps building materials need to be different. One needs only to look at California and other Western provinces and states to see some of the issues. Once this fire is over, it may be time to reconsider what is needed to minimize the chances of more uncontrolled wildfires in the future.

  2. I’m not sure exactly what I am more disturbed by. The seemingly cavalier attitude toward human life in a twisted collective that is city hall OR the nauseating titles of the layers of the moldy bureaucracy put in the stream to analyze but do nothing.
    These are humans lives that could have been lost. It’s still a disaster.

    How about the fire chief and the head of planning sit in a room together and figure it out. No dick swinging allowed. No consultation to see if you should. Just do it.