We’re devoting all of today’s Morning File to coverage of the Tantallon Fire.

1. Evacuation orders

The evacuation zone as of Monday morning, May 29, 2023, according to Halifax Fire. Note: this map appears to be incorrect. See below. Credit: Halifax Fire & Emergency Management

Evacuation orders started in the late afternoon and the affected area was expanded well into the night, covering these areas:

  • Westwood subdivision, Upper Tantallon
  • Whitehills subdivision, Hammonds Plains
  • Highland Park subdivision, Yankeetown
  • Haliburton Hills
  • Pockwock Road
  • Glen Arbour
  • Lucasville Road to Sackville Drive
  • Maplewood
  • Voyageur Way
  • St George Boulevard, including all side streets
  • McCabe Lake area
  • Indigo Shores

2. Ellen Sim

Credit: Contributed by Ellen Sim

This item is written by Suzanne Rent.

Ellen Sim is at a hotel on Bedford Highway with her husband, 23-year-old daughter, and their cat waiting to hear news about their home on Waterloo Way in Stillwater Lake.  

In an interview with the Examiner Monday morning, Sim said her family left their home about an hour before the official evacuation alert came out on Sunday. They took clothes for a few days, their computers, and documents, including wills and passports.  

“As soon as we heard it was on the other side of the road, my daughter was a bit anxious. Honestly, my husband and I thought we were going to be back in an hour,” Sim said. “We were doing a pre-cursory pack, to kind of alleviate her anxiety.”  

Sim said her subdivision only has two exit routes and they were concerned about getting out.  

“We are right at the end [of the road] and we didn’t want to get trapped,” Sim said. “We got out ahead of the official evacuation, but not much ahead of it.” 

When they left their home, they could see the smoke cloud in the area. That was late in the afternoon. Before that, Sim said it had been a usual day at their home with gardening, painting, and a trip to get ice cream.  

“My daughter and I had driven over to the Dairy Queen one hour before the fire started. And then one hour later, the whole [area] was up in flames,” Sim said. 

They are staying at the Comfort Inn on Bedford Highway. Sim said her mother lives nearby in an apartment on the Bedford Highway. 

Sim said they have a lot of friends in Kingswood who were packed and ready to go and they are in touch with them.  

“Most people are getting ready to go and are packed more thoroughly than we did,” Sim said. 

Sim said her husband spoke with their insurance company and said it sounded as if they will be covered, but she wasn’t sure of all the details at this point.  

“First conversation sounds hopeful, which is good,” Sim said. 

Sim said she’s been on Twitter for the social support while her husband is watching official social media channels for updates. She said her husband told her that based on maps being shared on social media, the fire is at the edge of their subdivision.

“I can’t watch it. I’m finding it too stressful. I don’t want to see photos of it. My husband is watching for where [the fire] is. I want to know is the house okay? Is the house not okay? Just the bare bones, but I don’t want to see the drama of seeing the video someone took of their son driving out of the subdivision. I don’t want to see that.” 

Sim said they were all awake most of the night and her daughter is now sleeping. Sim is retired and her husband works from home but is taking time off. They booked the hotel for two more nights. 

“I really don’t have any strong feelings whether the house will be there or not in two days. Even if it is, I don’t know when we’ll get back to it… really, we are all fine and safe.” 

“I am here talking about how maybe I’ll lose my house … and there are people who lost their homes and god forbid people lost pets. We’re fine, we’re in a hotel room… compared to folks who lost their homes already, that’s horrific. I hope everything is okay for them.” 

3. Comfort centres

“Comfort centres” for evacuees have been established at:

Black Point Community Centre
Canada Games Centre
Beaver Bank Kinsac Community Centre

4. School closures

The following schools are closed for the day:

Bay View High
Hammonds Plains Consolidated
Kingswood Elementary
Tantallon Junior Elementary
Tantallon Senior Elementary
Madeline Symonds Middle School

School buses will not run in the evacuation areas.

5. Pets and horses

Several brown and black horses graze on grass in front of a school under under a bright blue sky. A Canada flag flies in the year.
Horses at Madeline Symonds Middle School in Hammonds Plains. Credit: Facebook/Twitter

People evacuated were urged to take their pets with them. Those who need a place for their pet should send a text to the SPCA at 902-229-8620.

Some horses were left in the evacuation zones, and some were set free and were wandering around Madeline Symonds Middle School. But later this morning, Foxpoint Stables said it had accounted for all horses.

The Truro Raceway has offered its paddock barn for evacuated horses; call 902-956-0024.

6. Urban–wildland interface

The Tantallon Fire is a classic urban–wildland interface fire. People like living in the woods, on large lots, and that explains the suburban landscape from Tantallon through the Hammonds Plains Road corridor up to Kingswood in the east and Pockwock in the west. These are precisely the areas most vulnerable to wildfire, where the forest provides the initial fuel and wooden houses further fuel the fire into a monster.

When I reported in California, I saw many such fires. Fires out in the sparsely inhabited woods meant mostly loss of timber, but there’s a swath of communities in the lower reaches of the Sierra where a fire means more traumatic human impact — loss of homes, pets, and sometimes life.

A buddy of mine, Dave, had to evacuate from a small community called Concow. He made it safely to a ridge opposite, and watched as the fire roared up through his community. He told me how every few seconds there was a “bang!” and a flash of light as the fire consumed a propane tank — bang! bang! bang! and on and on, as he realized one of those bangs was his own house.

In the late 1990s, I regularly reported on Butte County (California) board of supervisors meetings — the equivalent of what we in Nova Scotia would call a county or municipal council. After one of the many wildfires, the county fire chief appeared before the supervisors and urged them to adopt a new building code for the wildfire prone areas of the county — everything above the valley floor and heading up the Sierra (there are no substantial forests in the valley).

The fire chief wanted the supervisors to outlaw wooden shake roofs because embers from nearby fires land on the roofs and start a new fire at the house. He also wanted wooden decks outlawed, explaining that each deck was a “tongue” that brought a fire right into the main structure.

The chief said that over time, a distinctive architectural style could emerge in the fire zones, with stone houses designed to withstand wildfires.

The supervisors politely heard out the fire chief, but took no action. In very conservative Butte County, they knew that even proposing to tell people that they couldn’t build houses as they please was a career ender.

Twenty years later, the Camp Fire roared up the Feather River canyon and into the town of Paradise, fueled every step of the way by wooden houses, their shake roofs and wooden decks, and propane tanks. Eighty-five people died. Thousands of structures burned to the ground, including the homes of several of my friends. Dave’s house in Concow burned down again. Kelly’s house next to Butte Creek, which had been a central point for our circle of friends, is gone. The entire social order of northern California has been disrupted by the fire in ways too complex to get into here.

As I watched the horrific scenes in Paradise unfold on my TV screen on the other side of the continent, I couldn’t help but recall that board of supervisors’ meeting, and wondered if the fire chief had been listened to, if building codes had been stiffened all those 20 years ago, would it had made a difference? It’s impossible to say for sure, but I’m left with the conviction that fire needs to be planned for.

Paradise has been rebuilt, but exactly as before. There have been no increased building standards. It could burn down again.

7. Planning for fire

Fires are not just some fall-from-the-sky act of God disaster — they’re the logical, predictable result of the urban–wildland interface. We must anticipate them, prepare for them, and learn from previous fires both here and in other places.

I’m told that some of the neighbourhoods evacuated last night have just one escape route. That can create a problem as emergency response vehicles hit traffic bottlenecks of fleeing residents, and if flames are engulfing the single exit point, residents have no way to flee. It’s my understanding that such single-road neighbourhoods are not now allowed in the development process, so I’m assuming these are older neighbourhoods. If so, there needs to be an assessment of such conditions, with new roads built where needed.

As well, the province and the municipalities should consider adopting stricter building codes for the urban–wildland interface. The tougher code could include a prohibition on wooden decks, consideration for the placement of outbuildings, and more.

In California, a fire inspector shows up at every house in the fire zones once a year to assess the clearing of brush around structures. Homeowners are told to remove dead branches near houses, and to keep 10 metres clear around their homes. Education about the dangers of fires goes a long way to reducing future losses.

8. Responding to fires

It’s too soon to say how well the fire response was last night, but there are always lessons to be learned from each disaster. I’ve seen enough fires to know that the firefighters themselves work bravely and at risk to themselves; I have no interest in critiquing them.

But if the mass murders have taught us anything, it’s that command structures can be confused, unwieldy, and sometimes counterproductive. Lessons that should have been learned from previous events aren’t applied. Contradictory orders are issued.

One issue raised by Portapique was the lack of detailed maps. And that was an issue last night during the fire response. Evacuation orders were issued via emergency alert, but only by texts listing neighbourhoods. A map was finally produced by Halifax Fire in the wee hours of the morning (the map above), but it appears to be incorrect — it includes an area that wasn’t evacuated in Sackville, and omits the Haliburton Hills neighbourhood that was evacuated.

During a fire, detailed maps for residents are essential. Maps that show evacuation orders and the known extent and probable path of the fire need to be produced quickly, and updated regularly, and they need to be accurate. This is not something that can wait for the next day (and even now, at publication, we still don’t have even a rudimentary official map of the fire) — it has to be done as the fire is spreading.

On Twitter, Halifax Fire News (@HRMFireNews), which is not affiliated with Halifax Fire, provided the following map this morning, noting that “This was submitted to me. It is unofficial but appears to be accurate. The red stars indicated fire location.” This is the best information we have, coming from an unofficial source:

From @HRMFireNews: “This is the best map I’ve seen of the evacuated areas so far, based off the alerts. This was submitted to me. It is unofficial but appears to be accurate. The red stars indicated fire location.” Credit: @HRMFireNews on Twitter

One of the biggest failures post-Portapique was the failure in alerting the public to the dangers. Officials seem to have learned the lesson with regard to the emergency alert system, which was activated four times last night related to the Tantallon Fire.

The Nova Scotia Emergency Management Office website at 8:40pm on Sunday night falsely said that “there are no provincial alerts.” This was nearly three hours after the first evacuation order was issued via the emergency alert system.

But there’s still an over-reliance on Twitter, while other platforms are ignored. For example, the provincial Emergency Management Office waited many hours before updating its webpage for emergency alerts.

Another problem related to Portapique was the limitations of the reverse 911 system, which should have been able (but often wasn’t) to alert residents with a phone call. I’d like to know if that system was used at all last night, and if so, how effective it was.

RCMP officers attempted to go door-to-door in the evacuation zones, but no matter how hard working the individual officers were, it’s unlikely they could have reached all of the thousands of evacuees.

There should be an assessment of all the evacuation procedures and alerts — what worked, what didn’t, and how they can be improved on.

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9. Informing the public

This morning, Zane Woodford went to the St. Margaret’s Centre to attend a press conference held by Halifax Fire, but came away with little new information.

“They won’t estimate size yet, started in Westwood now it’s moving back to Westwood. 100 firefighters on site and 30 vehicles,” Woodford tells me.

But also, Deputy Chief Dave Meldrum told reporters only that more than 10 homes have been lost, when the number is clearly in the dozens. It’s impossible not to recall the RCMP press conference on Sunday night, April 19, 2020, when Deputy Commander Chris Leather downplayed the number of dead in the mass murder, also sticking to the “more than 10” language when he then knew that there were at least 17 casualties.

It’s imperative that officials be forthright with the public, be honest about what they know, and if they don’t know, at least give an indication of how severe they think the situation may be.

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10. Climate change

Smoke from Westwood Hills as seen from the 103 shortly after the fire started. Photo: Dan Moscovitch Credit: Dan Moscovitch

The fire started yesterday when it was 27 degrees, and in a stiff westerly wind.

We can argue all we want about whether this or that fire was the result of climate change, and what the causal connections are, but it’s undeniable that a warmer, drier climate brings with it more fires.

While I’ve focused above on planning for and responding to fires, we should of course do what we can to address climate change.

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

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. We were living in Colorado Springs, Colorado when the Waldo Canyon wildfire erupted. Three days later we were ordered to evacuate immediately when the winds shifted and the fire spread quickly aided by 38 °C temperatures and winds gusting to 105 kmh. That’s when we discovered that the people who were in charge of public safety had never planned for a mass evacuation. We sat in traffic that didn’t move for three hours as the the fire got closer, covering us with ash embers rained down from the fire a mile away. Two people died and 346 homes were destroyed. The Waldo Canyon Fire resulted in insurance claims totaling more than US $453.7 million. It was the most destructive fire in Colorado state history, as measured by the number of homes destroyed, until the Black Forest Fire in Colorado Springs surpassed it almost a year later when it consumed 486 homes and damaged 28 others. Since then, fire mitigation has been in the forefront, but I have yet to see an evacuation plan.

  2. Totally agree about the lack of maps.
    I plotted my own evacuation area based on the streets and subdivisions named in the official description for my daughter in Lower Sackville, not far from fires that seemed to be advancing in the direction of her new home, and got it somewhat right and somewhat wrong. I searched the Weather Network, Environment Canada, CBC, CTV, Global but nothing until quite late. I would have hoped somebody was doing this and updating it to help folks decide quickly if they needed to leave.

  3. We have recent examples of how the fire emergency services in BC and Alberta have trained, professional spokespersons designated as the primary sources for information to the public and the media. These are not “spin doctors” or political mouthpieces but people who have the sole job of working within the response system to get the necessary information together and pass it along in a credible, cogent manner as quickly as possible. We don’t have that here, and it shows. Information response is being left to already too busy response leaders or what is worse, to elected politicians who are more focussed on a political spin than information transfer. This is not just a “nice to do” but an essential part of the emergency response. Lack of such a focus point leads to confusion, mixed messages and in the case of this fire, trying to hide the fact that way more than 10 homes have been damaged. In the absence of a credible and timely information flow, a vacuum is created which, much like the wildfire, starts a whole free-for-all on social media which adds to confusion and in fact puts people and property at risk. An example is the “viral” video of the two guys in the car driving through flames to get a video to post. Those people could very well have video recorded their own death. Credible information should not be considered a frill or a “nobody’s business” thing. It is essential. We should have – but didn’t – learn that fully from the Mass Casualty Commission, and now here it is again rearing its head of disinformation and misinformation when we need it the most.

  4. Re Fires and the Wildland/Urban interface: The Halifax area is particularly prone to fires both because there are lots of human activities that could set them off, and because there is a lot of shallow soil over hard bedrock, droughty landscape, and it’s breezy by the coast. There is a whole set of “FireSmart” practices that homeowners can apply to reduce risks to residences. Having evacuation plans to get away from residences in fire prone areas is important, also hikers into our wild areas should evaluate fire risk before they go, and have some strategies to get away from or survive a fire; I wrote about this recently in relation to our highly fire-prone “Backlands” (http://backlandscoalition.ca/?p=5170).

  5. DNRR has adopted FireSmart guidelines, which educate homeowners about how to reduce the risk of fire spreading within their property: https://novascotia.ca/natr/forestprotection/wildfire/firecentre/fire-smart.asp. Sadly the Province does not do a lot of promotion of these guidelines, and I haven’t seen HRM take them as seriously as some municipalities in New England with highly fire-prone areas (like we have in Halifax’s Purcells Cove Backlands – which had a large fire in 2009).