When I popped onto the computer last Sunday night and learned a fire was raging in the western suburbs, I knew the Halifax Examiner was going to be busy this week.
I devoted Monday’s Morning File entirely to all things fire, and the entire Examiner crew jumped to action to get information to readers, finding new angles, going to press conferences, interviewing those affected and officials and experts. The Examiner acted like clockwork, with little direction from me — the staff knows the routine, they know their jobs, they’re good at it.
That’s because this isn’t our first rodeo. When COVID hit, I hired more people and told them to go all in; pandemic news was so important that nothing else mattered. In those first few weeks of the pandemic, we learned to work together as a team on a huge story; we developed the internal tools and ways to communicate to become an effective and essential news outlet.
Then, just a month into the pandemic, the mass murders happened. Our well-oiled team sprung into action again.
As terrible as the news was — and believe me, the murders affected journalists as we reported on them — I came to realize that the Examiner had become something special, something unique. In my four decades in the journalism business, I had never before experienced such a collaborative, in-sync reporting project. We published news articles co-written by as many as eight authors. Some days we published nearly a dozen articles. We seemed to anticipate each other’s moves. We knew intuitively who should do what, and yet we spent hours and hours discussing our approaches, the best way to get information to readers.
I’m supposedly the boss here, but in those days I learned so much from the other Examiner reporters that I couldn’t think of them primarily as employees, but rather as colleagues who I depend on for advice, for assistance, and for support during what can sometimes be trying times; they have my back, and I hope they know I have their backs.
This team worked through the pandemic, through the mass murders, and through so many other stories that it’s hard to recall them all. We’ve worked hard. We’re all tired. I know I’m tired.
So, when the Mass Casualty Commission wound down, and summer approached, I was looking forward to a bit of a slow time to rest up and do that self-care thing. I want the same for the rest of the team. Each of us has our own reporting interests, and spending a few summer months working on non-pressing “fun” stories would be good for the soul.
But then Tantallon and Hammonds Plains went up in flames. So we’ve spent this week reporting all-in on the fires, and we’ll be following up over the next weeks and months with the human stories, the institutional side of things, our own investigative reporting, and more. We’re collecting all our fire reporting here.
This is what we do.
Alas, we are stretched thin financially, so I’ve had to make the decision to turn our annual subscription drive into a biannual subscription drive — June and November. We need your help to keep this operation whole and responsive.
The Halifax Examiner is not typical transactional reporting business — you’re not paying for this or that single article. Rather, your subscription money pays for the entire reporting process. It pays for that well-oiled team, that collaborative group of reporters who are ready to spring into action when the need arises, like now.
We’ve been there for you. We were there for the pandemic. We were there for the mass murders. We’re here for you now during the fires.
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1. Current fire situation
This morning’s light rain was welcomed by firefighters, but it will only give them a few hours reprieve, said Dave Steeves, a technician of forest resources with the Department of Natural Resources.
“It wasn’t enough to really be significant,” said Steeves. “But it increases the moisture level in the area and will keep our spread rates from getting too out of hand. And it will decrease the intensity of anything that our firefighters run into.
“The amount of precipitation that we had would have a small effect on the fine fuels,” he continued. “So, basically what that means is the leaves and the twigs and the smaller fuels that are on the forest floor. But as you can see already, we’ve got some sun coming out. It’s going to turn those fine fuels dry just as quickly as they become saturated. So, that precipitation that we received this morning will help us for [just] a few hours. But we will take that advantage right now.”
Yesterday was a difficult firefighting day, said Deputy Fire Chief Dave Meldrum. Two firefighters in Tantallon were treated for heat stress, but recovered without hospitalization. Meanwhile, fire erupted across HRM, including a very large fire at the Waegwoltic Club on Coburg Road.
For the first time in memory, a general call was put out for all off-duty firefighters. Additionally, 20 firefighter trainees who are four months into their training provided support at the Waegwoltic Club.
The fires at the Waegwoltic Club, at Ragged Lake, and in Fall River are now considered “out,” but crews are still watching the scenes.
Municipal firefighters from both Truro and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality are now in Tantallon.
People who have lost homes to the fire will be escorted into the fire zone on a bus today, although not every person who lost a home wants to be on the bus.
2. Illegal burns
“Halifax Fire’s deputy chief pleaded with people to stop with illegal burning as wildfires continued across the province and new fires started in locations around HRM,” reported Jennifer Henderson and Suzanne Rent last night:
“We’re having a very, very busy afternoon due to fire activity,” said Dave Meldrum during Thursday’s 5pm briefing. “We’ve had 12 outside fires since noon today. We also have other major fires underway.”
One of those fires is at the historic Waegwoltic Club on Coburg Road in Halifax. That fire began early Thursday afternoon. Meldrum said there are 50 firefighters on that fire who are using a “defensive” strategy because the fire is too severe.
Another fire started in the Prospect Road and St. Margaret’s Bay Road area around 2:45pm. Meldrum said that fire has been knocked out. Meldrum said that means open flames have been suppressed and firefighters are dealing with smouldering in the area. There are two units on scene. He added that off-duty firefighters were being called in given the number of calls Thursday.
Meldrum said since most outdoor fires are caused by people, starting today Halifax firefighters were told if they find an illegal burn, they are to report it to the fire prevention division, which will follow up with enforcement.
At a press conference yesterday afternoon, Mayor Mike Savage said that one person was found burning leaves with a propane torch; another had a bonfire. Both are clear violations of the province-wide burn ban, which now carries a $25,000 fine on conviction. (Savage did not say if either person was charged.)
Across the province, 10 people have been charged for violating the burn ban and/or violating the stay-out-of-the-woods order. No details were provided about those charges this morning.
As Savage says, burning at the height of fire season is not just illegal, but stupid. I am not at all downplaying that reality; however, it strikes me that given Nova Scotia’s typically wet climate, there simply isn’t a culture of fire awareness here. In perpetually burning California, even the most ignorant people know not to burn brush or have bonfires when conditions are ripe for wildfire. I think people here just don’t understand the profound risk.
I’ve pointed out before that I’ve seen fires start from the most mundane human causes — a lawnmower blade hits a rock, a driver pulls off the road to take a phone call and the tailpipe of his car touches dry grass, a carelessly dropped cigarette. In the dry season, we’ve got to see any of our normal actions as the potential beginning of a conflagration.
I fear, however, that the carelessness around fire is not simply ignorance, but ugly people asserting their “freedom” without regard for any injury it may cause their neighbours. We’ve gotten to the point where simply asking people to be responsible citizens is understood as “communism” and “fascism” (they’re the same thing to these idiots) in some circles. Layer in some anti-science disdain for “elites” and here we are.
“After clients with upcoming closing dates were unable to get home insurance for properties within 50 kms of a wildfire, realtor Jacqui Rostek Holder is recommending house hunters contact their insurance providers,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:
“I wanted to raise awareness to those buying homes because someone might assume that for example, a home in an area in Dartmouth would be easy to get insurance for later, but avoid getting the letter while doing due diligence/conditions for the purchase, and then find out that there is a moratorium on new policies,” Holder told the Examiner.
“During major wildfire events, insurance companies may put temporary limitations on the sale of new policies in those areas that are under imminent threat,” Amanda Dean, vice president for the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s Atlantic region, said in an interview Thursday.
“And the definition of ‘area under imminent threat’ might vary from company to company.”
While one insurer may have a 50 kilometre radius from a wildfire, another might be 30 kilometre and another could set the radius at 25 kilometre.
“Amid wildfires, widespread evacuations, emergency alerts, and much uncertainty, it has been a challenging week for Nova Scotians,” reports Yvette d’Entremont:
For many, including children, the anxiety can persist long after wildfires have been extinguished. But what’s normal and when should you be concerned that your child or youth might be struggling in the aftermath of such an event?
“After a fire, it will take time for communities to redevelop a sense of safety, security, and comfort,” notes an IWK Health Centre fact sheet about coping with an emergency or disaster. “Daily life will be significantly disrupted for whole communities for a potentially long period of time.”
The Halifax Examiner spoke with Holly Murphy, leader of the IWK’s trauma-informed care team, about what parents and guardians should know and what to watch for now and in the coming weeks and months.
5. Paper excellence and Asia Pulp & Paper
The Deforestation, Inc investigation by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist (ICIJ), which included Joan Baxter for the Halifax Examiner, looked at the ownership of Paper Excellence, the operator of the Northern Pulp mill in Pictou County.
Paper Excellence is the the largest pulp and paper company in Canada, controlling 21% of the market and 22 million hectares of Canadian forests. The Deforestation Inc series revealed close ties between Paper Excellence and Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) that amount to an effective controlling interest of the former by the latter.
This matters because APP, which is a Goliath in the global pulp industry, has run afoul of environmental labelling policies and is criticized for alleged human rights abuses just as it dominates the pulp trade, putting it in a position to control prices.
Moreover, Paper Excellence’s Nova Scotian subsidiaries are now going through the creditor protection process, has stopped payment on $86 million owed to the province, and is suing the province for a whopping $450 million. But if Paper Excellence is ultimately owned or controlled by APP, can it truly be said to be insolvent?
Paper Excellence denies any ownership connection with APP. As a result of the Deforestation Inc investigation, Paper Excellence exec Jean-François Guillot was summoned before a parliamentary committee and said Paper Excellence has not had a “relationship with APP since 2015.”
But, in a bombshell revelation the Examiner published last night, Baxter reports that a 2017 ministerial briefing note prepared by the provincial Department of Finance for the McNeil government said plainly that:
PEC [Paper Excellence Canada] is ultimately controlled by Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), an integrated pulp and paper company (division of conglomerate SinarMas) based out of Indonesia. APP is banking on rising paper/ tissue consumption in China.
It’s unclear what specific knowledge the bureaucrats at the Department of Finance had about the ownership arrangements of the two companies, but clearly they should be interrogated about the brief.
Everyone stay out of the woods — except loggers
Bev Wigney has written an open letter to the premier:
I’m writing to state what should be obvious to everyone who is familiar with current forest conditions. *Everyone* needs to be out of the forests until such time as weather conditions change and the risk of wildfires ceases. Allowing entry with heavy harvesting equipment and logging trucks into any forest, whether on Crown or private land, whether by day or night, and whether with a permits to do so or not, is foolhardy and asking for the kind of trouble that no one needs at this time. It is incredulous that forestry is permitted to continue when the forests are dry as a bone. Mosses are so dried out that they are crispy like tinder. Typical slash such as chopped up branches are desiccated and easily ignited.
Are you not aware of past fires that have been started by machinery malfunctions that caused fires that couldn’t be extinguished by the crews and led to wildfires? Many of us are well aware of at least one very bad fire in recent years that started this way, and it is common knowledge among people living near forests that there have been other similar incidents even though the cause was downplayed.
Further, do you not know that steel tracked machinery driving over granite — which is just about everywhere in Nova Scotia forests — can produce sparks that can easily start a fire?
Read the entire letter here.
After Popular Attention Washes Away: Check-in post-Fiona (Friday, 12pm, online) — Zoom panel discussion, info and registration here
In the harbour
08:00: Thorco Liva, cargo ship, sails from anchorage for sea
10:00: East Coast, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea
16:00: MSC Qingdao, container ship, arrives at Pier 41 from Baltimore
17:00: Nolhanava, ro-ro cargo, arrives at Pier 41 from Saint-Pierre
20:30: CSL Tacoma, bulker, arrives at Gold Bond from Savannah, Georgia
07:00: Sheila Ann, bulker, sails from Coal Pier (Sydney) for sea
08:00: Harrier Bay, oil tanker, arrives at EverWind from Montreal
12:00: AlgoScotia, oil tanker, sails from Government Wharf (Sydney) for sea
16:00: Seaways Yellowstone, oil tanker, arrives at EverWind from Hound Point Terminal, Scotland
I’m writing this at the Tim Hortons in Tantallon, which is packed. Everyone wants to talk about the fire, share their stories. It’s sad, of course, but there’s a welcome camaraderie. I’ve spoken with several evacuees, and that limited sample is in relatively good spirits, considering.