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Unprecedented Nova Scotia wildfires have evacuees fearing what awaits them

HALIFAX — As an unprecedented string of wildfires in Nova Scotia continued to burn out of control Wednesday, thousands of residents forced to flee their homes spent a fourth day wondering what their neighbourhoods will look like when they return home
A waterbombing helicopter is seen carrying water as emergency responders battle the wildfire burning in Tantallon, N.S., outside of Halifax on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese

HALIFAX — As an unprecedented string of wildfires in Nova Scotia continued to burn out of control Wednesday, thousands of residents forced to flee their homes spent a fourth day wondering what their neighbourhoods will look like when they return home.

Fire officials were hoping for a break in the dry, windy weather, but the forecast did not call for any rainfall until Friday night.

As of Wednesday, there were four out-of-control wildfires in Nova Scotia and about 21,000 people forced from their homes by mandatory evacuation orders. 

One of the out-of-control wildfires is new, near Lake Road in the Municipality of the District of Shelburne. It is currently estimated to be 0.2 square kilometres in size. The municipality ordered evacuations in parts of Lake Road, Sandy Point Road, Jordan Bay and Jordan Ferry.

In the Halifax area, fire officials said 200 structures, including 151 homes, had been destroyed by a fire that started Sunday in a suburb northwest of downtown.

Joe Benvie, one of 16,000 Halifax-area evacuees, said he was anxious to get home to rescue his two cats.

"It’s horrible, horrible to have to wait," the 45-year-old mechanic said Wednesday as he sat on a curb in a parking lot near a firefighting command post in Upper Tantallon, N.S., a donated cat carrier beside him.

Visibly fatigued, Benvie said he was feeling frustrated by a police decision to stop escorting people to their homes to retrieve pets because of the increased danger caused by deteriorating weather conditions.

"I know it’s windy, but there's living pets in those homes,” he said as a helicopter carrying a large water bucket flew overhead to the tinder-dry woodlands nearby. "To me, my cats are just like my kids. They’re like my family.”

Earlier in the day, the RCMP said requests like Benvie’s should be relayed to the SPCA, which is working with police and firefighters to save as many pets as they can.

Benvie, who has diabetes, said he also needed to get his small mobility scooter and medications, but people in need of medicine and medical devices were being told Wednesday to contact their local pharmacy.

Aside from the Halifax-area wildfire, a much larger fire in southwestern Nova Scotia has forced about 5,000 people from their homes in Shelburne County, RCMP said Wednesday. The fire covered almost 180 square kilometres, making it one of the largest wildfires ever recorded in the province. And fire officials confirmed it had consumed about 50 homes and cottages.

"Over the last few days we've been seeing 200- to 300-foot flames on the head of this fire,” Dave Rockwood, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, told a news briefing Wednesday.

As well, there was a much smaller fire burning out of control about 30 kilometres away in East Pubnico.

But the wildfire getting virtually all of the attention is the one on Halifax's doorstep. And while municipal officials held talks Tuesday about letting some residents of the 100-square-kilometre evacuation zone return home, Halifax deputy fire Chief David Meldrum made it clear Wednesday that wasn't about to happen.

"We are not changing the evacuation zone at this time,” he told a news briefing outside the command post. “I would recommend that everyone anticipate, given the weather forecast, (not) making plans for re-entry.”

Officials fear the 8.4-square-kilometre fire, which had grown slightly by Tuesday night, could flare up again because of the hot, dry weather. Environment Canada was forecasting temperatures in Halifax to hit 32 C on Thursday with no chance of rain and winds gusting to 40km/h.

"This weather is increasing in severity, it's going to continue to be dry, it's going to be even warmer, so the prognosis is difficult," David Steeves, a forest resources technician with Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources, told an afternoon briefing.

The most heavily damaged areas are subdivisions between Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains. "It’s a site of tragedy," Meldrum said when asked about what remains in the zone.

"There's widespread destruction, and there's a level of randomness that comes with wildfires when they hit ... where people live. There are properties that are unharmed close to properties that are destroyed. It’s terrible to see. These are people’s homes.”

Stewart Jordan, a 63-year-old resident of the Highland Park subdivision, did his best Wednesday to put the unfolding disaster into perspective.

“It’s just physical possessions,” he said in an interview, adding that he’s become resigned to not knowing the fate of his home while the fire is still burning.

“Even if you find out for sure that, at this minute, your house is OK, that can change in a blink of an eye," he said. "All it takes is for the wind to change direction a couple of degrees, and what was green becomes black.”

Steeves said that when the winds blow from the south, as they were on Wednesday, they are considered "drying winds" that will draw moisture from leaves and twigs on the ground. And when humidity levels get close to the forecast temperature, that's a worrying phenomenon firefighters refer to as a "crossover." 

“That’s an indicator of extreme fire behaviour,” Steeves said. 

Despite the ongoing risk, no deaths or injuries have been reported as a result of the fires.

Later in the day, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told a briefing that the municipality had received eight complaints since late Tuesday about people defying a provincewide ban on outdoor fires.

“Illegal outdoor burning puts lives and properties at risk,” Savage said. “You’re endangering yourselves, your family, your neighbours if you do that .... It would be nice during a crisis if we could have a ‘no stupidity’ policy.”

Savage's frustration was matched by Premier Tim Houston, who announced that the province was increasing the maximum fine for breaking the burn ban to $25,000 from $237.

“I just don’t know what (people) are thinking," he said. "I don’t get it with what’s happening in this province right now." 

Meanwhile, the Halifax region decided to ban people from entering wooded areas in municipal parks, a move that followed the province’s decision Tuesday to ban all activity in wooded areas, except campgrounds. The restrictions apply to Crown and private land, though forestry companies are allowed to work between 8 p.m. and 10 a.m.

Restrictions have also been imposed on the two national parks in Nova Scotia and at some of its national historic sites.

The province also announced Wednesday that 17 firefighters from New Hampshire and New York state would be joining the firefighting effort on Saturday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2023.

Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press