Halifax area neighbourhoods evacuated as fast moving fires engulf homes and spread
By Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton
A rapidly spreading wildfire, fed by strong winds and tinder-dry woods, has damaged or destroyed dozens of homes and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents from suburban communities northwest of Halifax.
Amid thick plumes of smoke, residents fled from the Tantallon area Sunday afternoon after the RCMP issued an emergency alert about rapidly advancing “structure and forest fires.” Over the next six hours, another three alerts called for more evacuations as the fire grew.
By 10 p.m., the wildfire was still out of control, Halifax Fire district Chief Rob Hebb said in an interview.
“It’s just running with the wind,” he said, adding there were no reports of injuries.
At 11 p.m., the mayor of Halifax, Mike Savage, declared a local state of emergency for the next seven days, saying the move will give the municipality access to emergency funds.
The evacuation orders apply to an area that appears to stretch over 75 square kilometres, most of which is about a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown Halifax. As the number of evacuees grew, Hebb said the number was in the thousands.
The Halifax Regional Municipality has opened an evacuation centre at the Canada Games Centre, at 26 Thomas Raddall Drive, to support residents impacted by the fires, especially residents without family supports or insurance. The Municipality says the Canada Games Centre will remain open until further notice.
Images shared on social media show towering flames and dark grey smoke enveloping large homes in sprawling subdivisions.
As night fell, temperatures dropped, but the winds were not expected to let up until after midnight, Hebb said.
“We’re not getting a lot of good news on the weather front,” he said, adding there is no rain in the forecast for at least a week.
Through the overnight hours, firefighters were withdrawn from the woods for their own safety, but they were expected to continue dousing flames inside the subdivisions.
Hebb said the fire was being attacked by crews aboard 15 fire engines, 25 tankers, two helicopters and a number of waterbombers from outside the province.
On Sunday afternoon, the fire was driven by steady winds at 15 to 20 kilometres per hour, with gusts reported at 40 km/h.
“It’s jumping roads and it’s … overrunning our crews and most of them are pulling back,” Hebb said earlier in the day. “The plume is visible from everywhere in the Halifax region.”
Noah Hickey, a 21-year-old construction worker, stood near a highway exit in Tantallon as he watched the fire.
“My house is up in Westwood and it might burn down,” he said, referring to the first subdivision to be evacuated. “We just moved in and don’t have rent insurance yet.”
Hickey said his employer’s trailers were burning when he left his work site earlier in the day. He said he tried to save an excavator from the flames, but “it lit up right next to my truck.”
“I’m nervous and my heart’s in my chest,” he said, pointing to smoke in the distance. “If it gets over that hill, my house is gone.”
Steve Hoskins, 37, said he and his family had to leave their home in nearby Hammonds Plains.
“It was starting to come our way and we had to evacuate,” he said as he sat at the roadside with his wife Julie, son Patrick and daughter Mia. “We don’t know what’s going on or if our house is still standing. I’m upset and anxious … We just have the clothes we have on and that’s it.”
The second emergency alert, shared shortly after 6 p.m., called for the evacuation of the Highland Park subdivision in Hammonds Plains. And just before 8 p.m., another alert ordered evacuations in Haliburton Hills, Glen Arbour, Pockwood Road, Lucasville Road and the White Hills subdivision.
White Hills is a 10-minute drive from Tanya Moxley’s home in Kingswood, N.S., where she and her family were preparing to leave if told to do so.
“The sun is not quite the right colour and there’s billows of smoke coming up over the back of the house,” Moxley said as she, her husband and two teenaged sons were busy getting ready.
“Every time the smoke went by, the sun was really red … You can just see little flaky things flying around and you kind of think, ‘Who’s burning something?’ … We’ve turned off the air exchanger and kept all the doors and windows closed.”
Moxley said she was trying to stay calm by putting things in perspective.
“Lots of people have it far worse,” she said. “People in Westwood have lost their homes. And parts of Canada have already had the same problem fairly recently.”
At 10:20 p.m., a fourth emergency alert called on residents to leave a number of other areas, including Maplewood, McCabe Lake and Indigo Shores.
The emergency alerts directed residents to a comfort centre at the Black Point and Area Community Centre.
Meanwhile, the Halifax-area fires came in addition to an out-of-control blaze in southwestern Nova Scotia that nearly doubled in size in a matter of hours as warm and windy conditions quickly intensified the flames.
Provincial officials said the Shelburne County wildfire had scorched an estimated 1,354 hectares by Sunday afternoon, growing from 775 hectares earlier in the day.
The fire about an hour southeast of Yarmouth “escaped containment” on Saturday night as searing winds propelled flames through a largely forested area around Barrington Lake, Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Patricia Jreige said in a statement.
With files from Brett Bundale.
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