By Michael MacDonald and Michael Tutton
Fire officials in Nova Scotia say the uncontained wildfire in suburban Halifax has remained stable, but they warn the return of dry, windy conditions Tuesday could lead to a “reburn” in evacuated subdivisions.
“We are expecting a bit of a weather shift,” David Steeves, a forest resources technician with Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, told reporters at a command post in Upper Tantallon, N.S.
“We are expecting a significant level of fire behaviour … It’s going to be an increasingly dangerous situation for the firefighters who are on the ground.”
Halifax deputy fire Chief David Meldrum said firefighters spent the night extinguishing hot spots in neighbourhoods where 200 homes and structures have been damaged since the fire started Sunday. It remains unclear how many homes have been destroyed because surveys have yet to be completed.
In all, about 16,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes, most of whom live about a 30-minute drive northwest of the port city’s downtown. The area under mandatory evacuation orders covers about 100 square kilometres.
Meldrum said it was unclear when fire officials would be able to allow affected residents to return to their homes.
“We understand how terribly upsetting this is for people who are waiting outside this area and don’t know what’s happened to their properties and when they can come back,” he said.
With the weather forecast calling for southwesterly winds gusting at 30 kilometres per hour, the concern is that the eight-square-kilometre fire will retrace its original route and set fire to what hasn’t already burned, Steeves said.
Trees and other flammable materials in the affected subdivisions have been “cured” by extreme heat, which means they will readily ignite if the fire returns, he said.
“The fuels that haven’t been consumed the first time that the fire went over, now are ready to burn,” he said. “The possibility of reburn … could create a very dangerous environment … That’s why it’s so important for folks to respect the evacuation zones and stay out.”
Meanwhile, the extended forecast is calling for hotter weather on Wednesday and no rain until Friday at the earliest.
As homeowners wait to learn the fate of the evacuated residences, questions are being raised about the response of firefighters and their access to fire hydrants in the sprawling subdivisions.
Meldrum said the fire on Sunday was moving so quickly that firefighters didn’t have time to worry about hydrants.
“Keeping up with the fire during Sunday’s events was more about the speed of the fire and our ability to get resources on the flanks of that fire and less about the availability of water,” he said.
“The intensity of this fire was so serious that our firefighters could not work ahead of the fire for their own safety.”
On Sunday, Halifax Fire district Chief Rob Hebb said his firefighters were at times being overrun by the advancing flames and had to quickly pull back to ensure their safety. “It was chaotic,” Meldrum added Tuesday. “It was an extreme event.”
Fire officials were asked about the inherent dangers in building massive subdivisions that have limited road access and remain exposed to large wooded areas, something Meldrum referred to as the “wildland-urban interface.”
“We all enjoy the beauty of nature,” he said. “But as we build deeper into what used to be forested land, consideration must be made for (installing) lots of places for firefighters to get water, (and building) many routes in and out of communities.” As well, Meldrum said residents in these areas also have a role to play by cutting back vegetation, using less combustible building materials and moving woodpiles away from the residences.
“There are many improvements that we can make in our community design,” Meldrum said.
As of Tuesday, Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency had six fire engines, 10 tanker trucks and 60 firefighters battling the fire, with the help of crews aboard three helicopters.
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