1. Today’s fire situation
Yesterday afternoon, a new fire erupted on Farmers Dairy Land in West Bedford. Fearing a potential ammonia leak, the immediate area was evacuated. That evacuation order was rescinded later in the evening, but as the fire raged, officials gave a “pre-evacuation notice” to people living in the area north of the dairy, on the following streets:
Viscount Run, starting at the intersection of Spyglass Run up to and including Cloverleaf and Summerwood lanes. Additionally, a pre-evacuate notice is in place for the following streets: Olive Avenue, Bernard Street, Estelle Avenue, Lewis Drive, Farmers Dairy Lane, Giles Drive, Bluewater Road, Topsail Court, Command Court, Gary Martin Drive, Lasalle Court, Castlestone Drive and Hammonds Plains Road from the intersection of Larry Uteck Boulevard and Giles Drive.
As of this writing, there has been no such evacuation order, and while that fire is still not technically under control (a hose line has not been established around it), this morning fire officials told reporters that the situation is “looking very, very good.”
Meanwhile, while yesterday officials had hoped they’d be able to reduce the Tantallon Fire evacuation zone, this morning they decided not to reduce it.
Fire officials told reporters this morning that overnight, the Tantallon Fire area has grown by 49 hectares to 837 hectares.
Evacuees from the Tantallon Fire should register with the municipality here or by calling 1-800-835-6428.
The province has banned all travel and activity in woods across Nova Scotia, as follows:
Hiking, camping, fishing and the use of vehicles in the woods are not permitted. People can still access beaches and provincial and municipal parks, but trail systems are off limits. Camping is allowed only in campgrounds.
The restrictions apply to Crown and private land. Private landowners are free to use their own properties but cannot host others to use wooded areas of their properties.
Forestry, mining and any commercial activity on Crown land are also restricted. People who conduct commercial activity on Crown land can apply for a permit at their local Department of Natural Resources and Renewables office.
Forestry companies working on Crown land can only work between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m. All companies and private landowners are encouraged to take this approach.
These restrictions are in place until June 25 or until conditions allow them to be lifted.
Wooded areas of city parks — Shubie Park, Point Pleasant Park, Admiral Cove Park, etc. — are also closed, but open space parks like the Halifax and Dartmouth Commons and Sullivans Pond are open, as are playgrounds and ballfields.
With files from Suzanne Rent and Zane Woodford.
2. There are now three large wildland fires burning in Nova Scotia
“Scott Tingley, manager of forest protection with the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, said there are currently 13 active wildfires across the province,” reports Suzanne Rent:
Three of those fires are out of control: Tantallon, Shelburne County, and a fire that started in the East Pubnico area on Monday night.
“It was last reported as 46 hectares, but it is expected to grow today,” Tingley said of the fire in East Pubnico. “Crews were on it all evening last night and early this morning with helicopters. We diverted one of the Newfoundland bombers over to that fire at one point, and we had crews on the ground, but they’ve been challenged this afternoon with the hot, dry weather. And so, we’re currently experiencing some challenges with that, but we will wait to see how the afternoon goes.”
In Shelburne County, 2,000 residents from 600 homes have been evacuated. Tingley said the fire in the Shelburne/Barrington area was a “very challenging” situation with hot, dry weather again on Tuesday. That fire started on Saturday night near Barrington Lake and is out of control and covers 10,000 hectares.
Jennifer Henderson is in Shelburne this morning and stopped by Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department. She reports:
There’s a sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the firefighters; adrenalin is flowing but the mood is subdued because of the obvious danger.
If firefighter Andy Blackmer [second from the left in the photo above] has one message to government it is please send more water bombers; air support. It’s the only thing that will make a difference.”
Blackmer has been a firefighter for 30 years. He’s seen plenty of fires but not one like this. “When you are out there, everywhere you look, there’s fire burning,” he says.
Henderson stresses that the volunteers say they don’t need more firefighters — they need water bombers.
“A small group of volunteers is working to get pets out of homes in the evacuation area around the Tantallon fire,” reports Zane Woodford:
Amy Wells started the Facebook group, HRM-Tantallon Wildfire Lost Pets.
“Animals are our families, they deserve as much consideration, they’re living and breathing and they deserve as much as a chance as anyone else,” Wells told reporters outside the St. Margaret’s Centre in Upper Tantallon on Tuesday.
“And it doesn’t matter if it’s your amphibian or your bird, or your beloved pet fish, we’ll do what we can.”
Wells said they’d already recovered dozens of pets on Monday, and the list for Tuesday was five pages long.
It goes without saying that firefighters are working hard, but I think it’s under-appreciated just how hard the work is.
These workers are carrying lots of heavy gear into uneven terrain in incredibly hot areas. Ideally, they work four-hour rotations into the wildlands before pulling back to the staging area at the St. Margaret’s Centre where they can rehydrate, eat, and get some rest before heading back in. That’s ideal. In reality, many of the firefighters are working six and eight hours uninterrupted, without break. It is a physically demanding job.
Additionally, it is stressful. Some firefighters’ families have been evacuated, and managers have obliquely hinted that firefighters’ own homes have been lost to the flames. Even when the loss isn’t personally their own, firefighters carry the strain of watching houses burn down, houses they wanted to save, and they feel responsible for the loss, as unfair as that it is.
There’s an urge to show up at the staging area to help and thank firefighters. That’s understandable, but the last thing these workers need is to be put in a position of being social and finding niceties to say to well-wishers. The fire agencies and governments are attending to the immediate needs of the firefighters, and the province has promised financial backing for the volunteers who have left their day jobs.
There will be plenty of time to thank and reward the firefighters after the fire is quelled. For now, let them do their jobs without interference.
5. Support workers and the fires
The school support workers’ strike has been eclipsed by the fires.
I was supposed to meet with some students yesterday to interview them about their support workers, but the students have been evacuated and their school closed, so we had to reschedule, hopefully for next week. I also have an interview with a support worker I conducted a couple of days ago that needs to be published, but my time and efforts have been focused on the fires.
But yesterday I spoke briefly with some support workers who told me that they’ll be especially needed when the closed schools reopen. Students are confused and worried, and will need all the support they can get when they return to school — and it’s precisely the workers who have worked with the students in the past who know each of them well, and can provide the continuity and emotional support needed. This is a terrible time not to have those workers with the students.
6. Fires and the information flow
When I mention these problems to public officials, they respond that firefighters and commanders are too busy fighting the fire to deal with pesky reporters. But that’s disingenuous by half. Keeping the public fully informed will make the emergency response run more smoothly, as people won’t be cluttering up the 911 system with unnecessary calls, won’t be confusedly asking first responders for directions and help, and won’t be haphazardly and mistakenly wandering into active fire zones.
Besides, no one wants to make a firefighter drop a hose and come talk with a reporter.
In its final report, the Mass Casualty Commission found that there should be a “comprehensive review of communications interoperability across the public safety system,” and that:
- The responsibility to prioritize and engage public communications staff must be clearly allocated.
- A public communications officer should be embedded within the command post.
The same arrangement should apply in fire emergencies.
Beyond that, the guarding of information by public officials smacks of paternalism. Surely, the scale of the destruction was well understood by Sunday night, but when on Monday afternoon I asked Premier Tim Houston if he could convey it — was it 50 homes lost to the fire? 100? — he said only that it was “dozens.” In reality, it was over 150. I didn’t expect an exact count, but giving an indication of the size of the disaster would have given the public an indication of the need for an enormous emergency response and would’ve helped people prepare both practically and emotionally for the post-fire reality
Houston’s response reminded me of RCMP Chief Superintendent Chris Leather’s press conference on April 19, 2020, when he told reporters that “more than 10” people had been killed in the mass murders. Leather had been told an hour before that at least 17 people were dead, but he stuck to the talking points because… well, I can’t explain why, other than that officialdom for some reason seems to think they can’t be straight-up honest with the public.
In my days reporting on fires in California, I’d drive up to a CalFire roadblock around an active fire zone, show my press pass, and they’d let me drive right through. Just as with a police response, so long as I didn’t interfere with first responders doing their job and understood that no one was going to divert their attention from the task at hand to rescue a reporter, I was good to go. Colleagues tell me it’s the same situation in British Columbia — reporters are allowed into a fire zone to take photos and observe the emergency response, so they can relate that information to the public. It’s our jobs.
But the Tantallon Fire is a no-go zone for reporters. At each public briefing, we ask that officials should at least escort in one pool photographer who can take photos for all news agencies, but even that is disallowed. I’m additionally told that the residents who have been escorted in to save pets and retrieve medicine have been instructed not to take photos from what, after all, are public roads (although the owner of Forest Kids seems to have secretly snapped the destruction caught in the photo above). Yesterday afternoon, the province’s communications bureau released a handful of photos from the fire zone, but none of those show structures that have been destroyed. The public is still completely uninformed visually of the scale of the disaster.
This official secrecy doesn’t protect those who have lost homes. This is not akin to the death notice of a loved one provided first by police so that a relative doesn’t learn of the death through the media. People who live on, say, Kata Court already know that there’s a strong likelihood their house has been destroyed, and having a photo of it might be helpful in terms of starting to make insurance and other arrangements.
Besides, people are finding out about their own losses through other means — we have reports of one person knowing their house is standing because the Roomba is still operating; another learned their house is burned down because the porch camera on the house across the road showed the ruins.
Moreover, reporters on the scene can give an independent assessment of the success of and challenges faced by first responders, an assessment that is not whitewashed and stage managed by government communications specialists. If firefighters struggle with having access to water or equipment to save a structure, a reporter on the scene might be able to document that problem; there’s no chance that a government PR person will let the public know about it.
Reporters are the public’s eyes and ears. We’re trained to observe, investigate, and report independently and outside the control of government officials and others who want to control information. If officials properly understood this, they’d see that the un-controlled flow of information is a public service that can strengthen trust in public institutions in the long run.
Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee (Thursday, 1pm, City Hall and online) — agenda
Women’s Advisory Committee (Thursday, 4:30pm, City Hall) — agenda
Harbour East – Marine Drive Community Council (Thursday, 6pm, HEMDCC Meeting Space, Alderney Gate) — agenda
In the harbour
05:00: MSC Lorena, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from Sines, Portugal
06:00: ZIM Vancouver, container ship, arrives at Pier 42 from Valencia, Spain
10:00: Lake Pearl, bulker, arrives at Gold Bond from Charleston, South Carolina
11:30: Oasis of the Seas, cruise ship with 6,431 passengers, arrives at Pier 22 from Saint John, on a five-day roundtrip cruise out of New York
13:00: Horizon Arctic, offshore supply ship, sails from Pier 28 for sea
15:30: MSC Lorena sails for sea
16:00: Oceanex Sanderling, ro-ro container, arrives at anchorage from St. John’s
19:00: Oasis of the Seas sails for New York
20:30: Thorco Liva, cargo ship, arrives at Berth TBD from Baltimore
21:30: ZIM Vancouver sails for New York
It’s still May. This could be a long summer.