Provincial forestry technician David Steeves was asked a question about resources during his Thursday morning update from the Tantallon fire response control centre: How confident is Nova Scotia in the tools it has at hand to battle an out-of-control wildfire burning across Upper Tantallon for the fifth straight day?
The answer “balances on a razor’s edge,” Steeves says, speaking with reporters at the St. Margaret’s Centre, two-and-a-half kilometres from where a fire sparked Sunday in the Westwood Hills subdivision. “When it comes to a wildland fire… the situation can change so quickly.”
The news was both positive and cautionary Thursday. Steeves says as of June 1, fire crews have managed to contain up to 50% of the 837-hectare blaze that has displaced more than 16,400 Haligonians to date. Still, he warns that Nova Scotians are “far from out of the woods” when it comes to the threat of the fire being over.
“We’re still dealing with a very dangerous and volatile situation,” Steeves says.
Between Wednesday and Thursday, temperatures reached peaks of 27 and 33 degrees Celsius, according to Environment Canada. That, combined with a dry spring and more wind coming from the southwest presents a risk for further fire spread.
There’s some relief in the forecast: The weekend calls for rain, starting as early as Friday. It can’t come soon enough for Halifax—or the rest of Nova Scotia, for that matter; in the first five months of 2023, the province has seen more than five times the amount of hectares lost to fire compared to all of 2022.
Steeves says his “fingers are crossed” the rain arrives as indicated:
“We need Mother Nature to get onside with us on this.”
Hotspot control underway
More than 130 firefighters from across Nova Scotia—and even PEI—are currently tasked with battling the blaze that has spread from Tantallon to as far as Pockwock and Hammonds Plains.
Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Halifax deputy fire chief Dave Meldrum cautioned Haligonians to “be ready for a long firefight.”
“This is going to be a prolonged operation,” Meldrum said.
While the veteran firefighter described Wednesday night as a “relatively tame and quiet” one for firefighters working overnight, hotspots remain. As of Thursday, Meldrum mentions the HRM’s firefighting resources are “stretched, but holding.”
The Tantallon fire has displaced roughly 16,492 Haligonians since fire crews responded to the first reports of a blaze in Tantallon’s Westwood subdivision on Sunday afternoon. That figure could be higher after a separate fire in Bedford prompted a Tuesday evacuation order for residents of a dozen streets in Bedford’s Stonington Park and Harmony Park neighbourhoods.
The silver lining: Nova Scotia has rescinded an evacuation order for residents of Indigo Shores and Farmers Dairy Lane.
Premier announces heightened fines for fires, calls on Ottawa for support
As firefighters battle fires in Tantallon, Shelburne and Pubnico, Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston renewed a plea for federal support during his daily news address on the provincial wildfires.
“We’re in a crisis in this province,” he said Wednesday afternoon, “and we want, and we need, and we’ll take all the support we can get.”
On Thursday, Houston’s pleas were answered: Federal public safety minister Bill Blair announced the Canadian Armed Forces will be providing support, both on the ground and in planning capacities, to aid with firefighting efforts across Nova Scotia. Firefighters are also en route from the United States and Costa Rica.
The premier mentioned the province has approached some universities—he didn’t mention which ones—about turning dorm rooms into temporary shelter for displaced Nova Scotians. This, a day after Houston announced a province-wide ban on all travel and activity in Nova Scotia’s forests until June 25. That includes walking, hiking and cycling in forested municipal parks like Point Pleasant Park and Shubie Park.
A province-wide fire ban remains in place—a situation Houston took pains on Wednesday to reiterate to Nova Scotians after a number of illegal fires were reported across the province. The provincial government has boosted the maximum fine for Nova Scotians caught illegally burning to $25,000.
“The forests are simply too dry; the conditions are too volatile,” the premier said Wednesday afternoon.
No timeline for return into evacuation zone for displaced Haligonians
On Tuesday, Halifax mayor Mike Savage had expressed hopes that some Haligonians forced to flee the wildfire might be able to return to their homes in the coming days—provided that weather conditions cooperate. The mayor had targeted Wednesday morning as a check-in point to update Haligonians about whether the current evacuation zone can be reduced in size.
“We’re not sending a signal that this fire is out,” Savage said. “We’re just saying that it’s evolving and we recognize that there are areas that we may be able to allow people to return to.”
Here is the latest map (accurate at 10:20 a.m. on May 31) of the wildfire in the Tantallon area. The active fire area is shaded in pink, and the evacuation perimeter is the dotted red line. pic.twitter.com/Hl5MvHOnPo— Natural Resources and Renewables (@NS_DNRR) May 31, 2023
As of Thursday afternoon, that appears unlikely.
“It’s much too soon to predict any time to go back into those homes,” Steeves says.
Earlier in the week, Meldrum described the current fire evacuation zone as a scene of “widespread destruction”: More than 200 buildings have been damaged or destroyed by the flames. The fire has destroyed an estimated 151 homes, according to fire officials’ estimates.
“We’re working as hard as we can to make that day come as quickly as it can to get everybody back home,” Meldrum says. “We will open more [evacuation zones], but we will do it in a controlled manner—and in a manner that ensures the safety of all our residents.”