Emergency Management Minister John Lohr found himself on the hot seat Thursday for an emergency order he issued June 1, while out-of-control wildfires were raging in Halifax, Shelburne, and Yarmouth counties. Lohr’s order overruled a 2021 ministerial order from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) that required the provincial government to open the gates of the aboiteau (dike) in Windsor to allow fish passage in the Avon River.
On Thursday, Lohr admitted to reporters after a cabinet meeting that he may have misspoken about the reason behind his decision but he is sticking to it. In fact, Lohr added, “The emergency order will be renewed as long as it is needed for public safety.”
Lohr issued his emergency order on June 1 after temperatures soared above 30 degrees and Halifax’s venerable Waegwoltic Club burned to the ground. Half a dozen other fires ignited and were quickly put out in and near the city. Meanwhile, firefighters continued to battle wildfires near Tantallon, as well as the largest one in the province’s history, which burned 235 square kilometres outside Barrington. It was a tense and upsetting time for thousands of evacuees unsure if they still had a home.
However, there were no wildfires in the western part of Hants County nor were there any near the town of Windsor when Lohr issued his emergency order to close the gates of the aboiteau next to Highway 101 so that water from the Avon River would back up and refill the former artificial Lake Pisiquid behind the dike.
The Progressive Conservative MLA for Hants West, Melissa Sheehy-Richard, issued a news release at 10pm on June 1. In part it reads:
Water levels in Lake Pisiquid are too low to provide enough water for firefighters to battle a fire. That’s an unacceptable risk at a time when fires are burning all over our province. The Emergency Order requires the sluicegates to be closed and the lake to be filled so firefighters can do their jobs and protect our community.
In March 2021, the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued an order that required the provincial government to open the gates of an aboiteau. That caused Lake Pisiquid to drain.
Minister Lohr declared a State of Emergency in the area this evening that overrides the federal order and instructs the operators of the sleway [sic] connected to Lake Pisiquid to close the gates, effective at 8:00 pm. The goal is to maximize the water supply available for wildfire suppression efforts”.
On June 2, the host of CBC Radio’s Information Morning asked Lohr to explain why he had issued the emergency order the night before. Lohr said he had received a request from the West Hants fire chief to make the lake available as a potential supply of water in the event of a fire.
The problem with that statement is the West Hants fire chief, Jamie Juteau, denies making any such request. Juteau has since signed an affidavit that will be used in a court challenge of the emergency order, as the Halifax Examiner reported here.
Lohr grilled by reporters
Here’s what Lohr told reporters today when asked about Juteau’s affidavit:
Lohr: If I misspoke or maybe misunderstood at that moment, what I can say is that this was a concern raised by fire officials. It wasn’t specifically a request that this action be done.
CBC reporter Michael Gorman: What fire officials specifically raised that concern?
Lohr: This was a fast-moving situation on June 1. It was raised by fire officials in Windsor.
Gorman: What would you say to people, especially how quickly it came on the heels of the premier and the local MLA filming a political video about this, that this (the emergency order) is nothing more than political opportunism?
Lohr: If you look back to the afternoon of June 1 — we had lost hundreds of homes in Tantallon and having fires across the province — on my shoulders was the responsibility to do every possible thing we could. I felt the pressure to do whatever I could as minister of EMO [Emergency Measures Office] to guarantee that all the resources were available to fight fires wherever they happened… You can imagine if we had a rural-urban interface fire in that region and we had not had the rainfall, that would have been on my shoulders.
Halifax Examiner reporter Jennifer Henderson: Were the concerns brought to your attention by the MLA for the area?
Lohr: The concerns were brought to my attention by my staff who had heard various pieces of information from the area. But we understood that the identification of the risk had come from fire resources.
On screen, during the question-and-answer session following today’s cabinet meeting, Lohr appeared uncomfortable and sounded as if he were reading from a script.
In 2021, the DFO order resulted in the loss of Lake Pisiquid for paddling and recreation and became a divisive political issue among local, provincial, and federal politicians. The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA) gave the Pisiquid Canoe Club a $632,500 grant to relocate to a different lake. The original clubhouse is still on Pisiquid.
RELATED: Small dam, big controversy
Lohr’s June 1 emergency order effectively overrode the two-year-old federal order that had opened the gates to allow fish safe passage during an ongoing highway twinning project until an acceptable replacement structure is in place.
As the Examiner reported here, the sudden closing of the aboiteau gate resulted in the deaths of many fish on the outside of the dam.
‘The losers are the fish’
Lohr’s June 1 emergency order was the subject of a challenge brought forward in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia on Thursday by Darren Porter, a local fisherman and marine conservationist. At Thursday’s virtual court session, Justice Scott Norton said he will hear Porter’s emergency motion requesting an end to Lohr’s emergency order, so the aboiteau can once again be opened to allow fish passage. Justice Norton set July 18 as the date for the emergency motion to be heard.
The Examiner asked Jamie Simpson, the lawyer representing Porter, for his reaction to Lohr’s decision Thursday to extend his emergency order keeping the aboiteau’s sluice gates closed.
Simpson replied, “It’s bizarre. I have not heard a single scrap of evidence to suggest that the emergency order is required. And certainly, it wasn’t required in the first place, and nothing in the past two weeks has happened to justify the order being in place. I’m quite surprised that the minister didn’t lift it. I fully expected the minister to lift it today.”
In an interview with the Examiner, Darren Porter said, “The losers of this order are the fish and fish habitat, the First Nations rightsholders, and the fishery.”
Where’s the emergency?
Now that the fires have been brought under control in the province and there is presumably no “emergency,” reporters today asked the Lohr what evidence he is relying on to renew the order. Lohr’s reply:
We’ve heard from the federal minister of public safety, Bill Blair, that there is a concern across the country that the fire situation remains extreme. We are still in a situation where there is low rainfall and there are still concerns for public safety.
“I can have a bonfire in my backyard now,” said one journalist. “Why is it we need to have Lake Pisiquid full of water?”
“What I can say is we will maintain the reservoir as long as it is needed for public safety,” said Lohr. “That reservoir has played a significant role in firefighting in the past.”
The Minister referenced a fire in 2016 where water was used from Lake Pisiquid. Others maintain that the artificial lake is not needed for firefighting purposes, as the Examiner reported here.
In a separate affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court as part of Porter’s emergency motion, Brett Tentanish, a firefighter with 32 years of experience in the Windsor area, wrote:
I am a Captain with the Brooklyn Fire Department (Nova Scotia), and former Deputy Chief of this fire department. This fire department is located approximately 10 kilometres from the town of Windsor.
I have bene (sic) previously employed as a Wildland Firefighter with the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources.
I am a level 2 firefighter certified by the IFSAC (International Fire Service Accreditation Congress), and trained to the level of Crew Leader in wildland firefighting. I am also a graduate of the NS Community College Landscape and Horticulture Program.
I have worked on several large forest fires in Nova Scotia, including wildfires in Porters Lake, Cow Bay and, more recently (May 2023), on the Tantallon fire, the Farmers Fire, and the Barrington Lake Fire.
Based on my training and experience fighting wildfires, I know that West Hants has many water sources, both fresh and saltwater, that helicopters can pull water from to fire wildfires. Lake Pisiquid in Windsor is not required to fight wildfires in the area around Windsor. Based on my experience, Lake Pisiquid would never be used for fighting wildfire because other water sources are closer to the nearby forests where wildfire could occur.
For the past two summers — both of which were hot and dry — the West Hants fire department has managed without the lake.
Also on Thursday, Oceans North issued a press release in support of calls to restore the Avon River fish passage.
This summer could be a hot one politically, regardless of what happens when Porter’s emergency motion is heard in court on July 18.