DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Three firefighters work to put out a wildfire in the Tantallon area on May 30, 2023.

DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire

How a fire spread from one St. Margarets Bay-area subdivision to prompt the evacuation of 16,000 Haligonians.

It was early Sunday evening in Hammonds Plains, and Karrie-Ann Buchanan and her partner were beginning to worry about wildfire smoke. Plumes of it had been drifting northeast from Upper Tantallon since late that afternoon. It hung over the Woodhaven RV Park they co-own and operate—64 acres of forest and campsites down the road from Hatfield Farm—and clouded the sky into a hazy grey-brown.

‘We didn’t get notification [right away] that we had to evacuate,” she says, speaking by phone with The Coast, “but we made the decision ourselves to tell everyone that they had to leave. And I’m glad we did.”

Within an hour of fleeing to Indigo Shores, the first provincial emergency broadcast told them their Hammonds Plains home was under an evacuation order. A wildfire that started in Upper Tantallon was spreading fast.

Two hours later, another emergency broadcast warned the Buchanans they would need to move again. This time, Indigo Shores was under evacuation. The Buchanans were among an estimated 16,400 Haligonians displaced by Sunday’s fire—one that has stretched into Monday and that fire officials expect to battle for the coming week.

As wildfires go, it is among the most destructive in the HRM’s history. As more unfolds in the days to come, The Coast is keeping tabs on how it all unfolded.

Sunday, May 28

3:30pm: Fire crews arrive in the Westwood subdivision, fielding reports of a blaze near Juneberry Lane. According to CTV News, a Halifax roofing crew is being hailed for spotting the flames early and alerting nearby residents.

4:02pm: Nova Scotia RCMP issues a public advisory, urging residents of Tantallon’s Westwood subdivision to “please immediately evacuate your homes.” The evacuation route, the RCMP notes on Twitter, is Windsor Drive to Hammonds Plains Road. The police agency mentions that Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office (EMO) will be broadcasting an emergency alert “imminently,” and that officers are on scene to help with the evacuation effort.

5:13pm: An hour and 10 minutes later, Nova Scotia’s EMO broadcasts its first emergency alert due to the wildfire. The alert orders residents of Westwood Hills subdivision in Upper Tantallon to evacuate their homes due to “ongoing multiple structure and forest fires.” A comfort centre opens at Black Point & Area Community Centre.

6:09pm: Nova Scotia’s EMO issues its second emergency alert. “The fire has now spread,” it begins. The province’s evacuation order expands from Westwood Hills to Yankeetown (Highland Park).

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Screenshot via @MediaMercenary / Twitter
Plumes of wildfire smoke visible from behind the Tantallon Plaza on May 28, 2023.

7pm: A group of Tantallon residents launches a Facebook group to reconnect owners with pets who need rescuing due to the wildfire. It grows to more than 7,300 members in less than 24 hours.

7:41pm: A third emergency alert from Nova Scotia’s EMO extends the evacuation order to Haliburton Hills, Glen Arbour, Pockwock Road, White Hills subdivision, and Lucasville Road continuing to Sackville Drive.

9:30pm: The Halifax Regional Centre for Education (HRCE) announces via Twitter that “due to wildfires & evacuations,” six schools will be closed Monday: Bay View High, Hammonds Plains Consolidated, Kingswood Elementary, Tantallon Junior Elementary, Tantallon Senior Elementary and Madeline Symonds Middle School.

10:19pm: Nova Scotia’s EMO expands its fire evacuation order to include Maplewood, Voyageur Way including St. George Boulevard and all side streets, McCabe Lake area and Indigo Shores.

10:30pm: Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston joins CBC Radio’s live evening broadcast to provide an update on the province’s response. “This is an incredibly, incredibly stressful and dangerous situation,” he says. Houston mentions that he’s met with Halifax mayor Mike Savage, and that ministers are meeting with their municipal and federal counterparts to “get as many resources at the situation as possible.” The premier adds the province is working to make more detailed fire maps available to the public, but “it’s pretty difficult right now with the amount of smoke.” The province has also activated its crisis line, Houston says—Nova Scotians can call 844-751-2133.

11:05pm: Halifax mayor Mike Savage and regional council declare a local state of emergency, granting the region power to access certain emergency discretionary funds and “mobilize additional supports.” The state of emergency will last for seven days, “unless otherwise lifted or extended.”

Monday, May 29

7:25am: The HRCE announces that, “out of an abundance of caution,” it will be closing five more schools Monday due to wildfire evacuations: Five Bridges Junior High, St. Margaret’s Bay Elementary, Sackville Heights Elementary, Sackville Heights Junior High and Charles P. Allen High School. That brings the number of Monday closures to 11 public schools in the HRM.

8:45am: RCMP officers direct traffic at the intersection of Hammonds Plains Road and the Highway 103 off-ramp. The traffic lights aren’t working, and the smell of smoke is thick in the air.

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Martin Bauman / The Coast
RCMP officers direct traffic away from Hammonds Plains Road heading northbound from Highway 103.

9am: At the Tantallon fire response command post set up at St. Margaret’s Centre, Halifax deputy fire chief David Meldrum tells reporters that more than 14,000 Haligonians were evacuated due to the wildfire. “We have a lot of work to do,” he says, noting that a full inventory of damaged and destroyed buildings “may take some time.”

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Martin Bauman / The Coast
Halifax Fire deputy chief David Meldrum speaks with reporters the morning after a blaze tore through Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains on May 28, 2023.

9:50am: Evacuees from the wildfire gather at the Black Point & Area Community Centre, where volunteers hand out Gatorade, water bottles, toiletries, Oreo cookies and other food. Brad George, who lives in Highland Park, tells The Coast that he isn’t sure if his home will have survived the blaze. “I could just see this big plume of smoke right outside,” he says. “I just started grabbing what I could and went outside, started putting stuff in the car. My neighbours were all doing the same thing.”

10:06am: Nova Scotia Health’s department of family medicine head, Dr. Maria Alexiadis, sends an email to physicians across Central Nova Scotia with an “urgent and heartfelt” request for physician support in staffing mobile medical clinics for those affected by the wildfire. The clinics will start Sunday at designated comfort centres and remain “ongoing as needed,” the email notes.

11:04am: The HRCE announces that it is dismissing all schools early in the following families of schools: Bay View High, Charles P. Allen High, Halifax West High and Millwood High. The early dismissal affects 32 schools across the HRM, as well as the Bedford campus of the Bedford Forsyth Education Centre.

12:49pm: A wildfire update from Nova Scotia’s department of natural resources and renewables (DNR) pins the current spread of the wildfire at 788 hectares and “out of control.” With winds gusting up to 40km/h throughout the day, the department cautions the fire “may spread further south.” At present, 170 firefighters from the HRM, 32 members of the DNR and seven members from the Department of National Defence are working to battle the blaze with the help of 30 fire trucks, two helicopters and a water bomber from St. John’s, NL.

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Communications Nova Scotia
A helicopter responds to the Tantallon wildfire by dropping water over the affected area.

3pm: Houston and Savage meet with reporters at the Eric Spicer Municipal Building in Dartmouth to provide an update on the wildfires in Tantallon and Shelburne. “We’re definitely a province that is on edge right now,” Houston tells reporters, adding the fires in Shelburne and Tantallon are “leaving a mark” on the province. He cautions that a burn ban order is now provincewide.

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Nova Scotia government
Premier Tim Houston addresses reporters on May 29, 2023, a day after a wildfire spread across Upper Tantallon.

Savage says the HRM believes roughly 16,000 Haligonians have been displaced by the Upper Tantallon fire—a number confirmed by emergency management director Erica Fleck. Savage says he’s spoken with prime minister Justin Trudeau and federal public safety minister Bill Blair, and he’s been “assured of support in whatever is needed” in the days ahead. Houston cautions that he expects evacuation orders will be in place “for days.”

“We’ll get through this,” he says. “It’s going to take time, but we will.”

3:29pm: Nova Scotia Health announces a drop-in health clinic for those displaced by the Tantallon wildfire. The clinic will run from 1pm to 5pm on May 29, and from 9am to 5pm on May 30.

5:30pm: The HRM cautions that given a “potential wind direction shift” Monday night, there could be the need to evacuate more areas due to threat of fire. The region advises residents in the current local state of emergency area to have bags packed and ready with enough supplies for 72 hours.

8:30pm: A preliminary estimate from the HRM indicates that “approximately 200 homes or structures” have been damaged as a result of the Tantallon fire. The figure comes from “initial visual inspections” by first responders.

Tuesday, May 30

6am: Heavy smoke fills the air in Upper Tantallon and spills onto Highway 103.

7am: The HRM urges residents who have evacuated their homes to register with 311 to receive updates on when they can return. “This situation remains fluid; teams are assessing the extent of damage,” the HRM’s release reads. It further pledges more information will be available “as soon as possible.” In the interim, the HRM is suspending curbside waste collection in the evacuation zones and is keeping the Tantallon Public Library closed.

8:47am: The province announces a mobile mental health clinic for those affected by the wildfire. It’s stationed at the Canada Games Centre. The province also mentions the Lifeworks Crisis Support Line is open 24/7 at 1-844-751-2133.

9am: Speaking with reporters at the fire response command post at the St. Margaret’s Centre, David Steeves of Nova Scotia’s department of natural resources says Tuesday winds—coming from the southwest—present a “dangerous situation” for firefighters battling the blaze. “We are hopeful that we can make some gain today, but we’ll have to wait and see how the environment is going to work with us on that,” he says.

10:22am: According to Nova Scotia Power’s outage map, roughly 4,435 homes are without power in the Upper Tantallon, Pockwock and Hammonds Plains area as of Tuesday morning.

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Nova Scotia Power
An outage map for Nova Scotia Power shows roughly 4,400 customers without electricity on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

11am: The HRM says in a release that the outpouring of support from Haligonians has been “tremendous,” but comfort centres and fire stations are “unable to receive either clothing or food at this time” due to their focus being on fighting the fires.

2:30pm: In an afternoon news conference, Halifax mayor Mike Savage says that as of 9am on Wednesday, May 31, the HRM plans to announce if its current fire evacuation zone can be reduced in size. “This is still dependent on fire conditions, which can change at any moment,” he says. Deputy fire chief Roy Hollett adds the fire has destroyed 151 homes. Currently, the main risk is hotspots, Hollett says—which “come back to life” with windy conditions.

Asked if Haligonians should consider Savage’s update as a sign the fire is abating, the mayor replies, “it should not.” He adds the fire “is not out.”

click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Communications Nova Scotia
Firefighter Zach Rafuse from Port Williams works to put out fires near Tantallon on Tuesday, May 30, 2023.

3pm: Speaking with reporters from Shelburne, where another wildfire rages, Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston calls the damage from Tantallon’s fire “extensive” and "heartbreaking.” He mentions conservation officers reported six illegal burns across the province last night. “For god’s sake, stop burning,” Houston says.

The premier also mentions that effective as of 4pm, all travel and activity in Nova Scotia’s forests—including camping, hiking and fishing—will be banned until further notice. “We’re in a very serious situation in this province, and we need to take the steps that we can to protect Nova Scotians,” Houston adds. The premier does not specify what compensation or refunds would look like for those with pre-existing provincial park reservations.

5pm: The smell of smoke thickens on the Halifax peninsula.

5:53pm: Nova Scotia’s DNR shares a report of a new fire in the Sandy Lake area of Bedford. The department advises that air and ground support are being “rerouted.”

6:40pm: Nova Scotia’s EMO issues a mandatory evacuation order for parts of Bedford due to a “wildfire and potential ammonia leak.” The order applies to Olive Street, Bernard Street, Estelle Street, Lewis Street, Farmers Dairy Lane, Giles Drive, Bluewater Road, Topsail Court, Command Court, Gary Martin Drive, Lasalle Court, Castlestone Drive and Hammonds Plains Road between Giles and Larry Uteck Drive. A comfort centre will open at the Lions Club at Lebrun Recreation Centre (36 Holland Avenue).

8:45pm: The HRM issues an alert discouraging Haligonians from “unnecessary travel” due to ongoing fires.

11:30pm: Halifax Parks & Recreation announces that both the Bedford-Hammonds Plains Community Centre and Lebrun Recreation Centre will be closed on May 31 due to the ongoing risk of fire nearby.

Wednesday, May 31

8am: The HRM closes all wooded areas in municipal parks and all municipal trails. Shubie Park, Point Pleasant Park and Admiral Cove Park are all fully closed. Non-wooded areas of municipal parks, including playgrounds and sports fields, remain open.

9am: David Steeves of Nova Scotia’s department of natural resources tells reporters the Tantallon fire has grown from 788 hectares on Tuesday to 837 hectares. Steeves says Wednesday “could possibly be a very difficult day” due to more southwesterly winds and low humidity. He mentions three helicopters will be joining the firefighting efforts.

Halifax deputy fire chief Dave Meldrum adds that “things look very good” in the Bedford area after Tuesday evening’s fire. As for the Tantallon blaze, Meldrum says roughly 100 firefighters will be on duty today, including crews from Hubbards, Mount Uniacke, Enfield, Elmsdale and Charlottetown, PEI. Meldrum notes that fire officials are not reducing the size of the evacuation zone: “When there’s a fire of this size, embers raise, and they can move a considerable distance away... and create more fires.” He encourages Haligonians to “be ready for a long firefight,” adding, “this is going to be a prolonged operation.”

10:39am: Halifax Regional Police are warning of a potential scam involving callers telling people the fire has spread to their area and to leave a message. Nova Scotia RCMP are warning of a similar scam involving texts, emails and calls about wildfire financial relief.

1:25pm: Halifax Water announces that all of its watershed lands are closed to the public “until further notice,” in an effort to protect water supply.

2:07pm: The province announces that firefighters from New York and New Hampshire will be joining the relief effort as of Saturday, June 3. The Tantallon fire is still deemed “out of control.” At present, 100 HRM firefighters, 52 DNR crew members, six Charlottetown firefighters and nine DND firefighters are battling the blaze.

2:30pm: Mayor Savage tells reporters that Halifax firefighters have fielded eight calls for illegal open burns since Tuesday evening. “I want to put a new twist on an old favourite from a previous crisis: No blazes at home,” the mayor says. “You’re endangering yourselves, your family, your neighbours.” He mentions fines for illegal fires range from $250 to $10,000. Savage adds he spoke with federal public safety minister Bill Blair on Tuesday and has made requests for support from Ottawa.

3pm: In an afternoon news conference, premier Houston tells reporters the province is reaching out to universities to inquire about making dorms available for temporary accommodations. He adds the maximum fine for illegal fires is now $25,000. “The forests are simply too dry; the conditions are too volatile,” Houston says.

Scott Tingley, a forest protection manager with the DNR, adds that to date, there have been 196 fires across Nova Scotia in 2023. Fourteen of those fires are currently active, and three are deemed “out of control.” Roughly 19,000 hectares of forest have burned across the province. That figure is more than five times what burned across Nova Scotia in all of 2022.

5pm: Speaking Wednesday afternoon, deputy fire chief Dave Meldrum says the “prognosis is difficult” for when the wildfire situation will improve. “It’s taking considerable time. And we’re containing this fire with our partners, but every day that goes by without rain, and every day that the temperature goes up, and every day that the winds are significant allows those fuels... to become more and more volatile,” he says.

7:30pm: Nova Scotia’s EMO lifts its evacuation order for Indigo Shores residents. A 30-minute evacuation notice remains.

Thursday, June 1

9am: DNR forestry technician David Steeves says firefighters have established “50% containment” of the Tantallon fire. “That being said, we are far from being out of the woods... We’re still dealing with a very dangerous and volatile situation,” he tells reporters.
click to enlarge DEVELOPING: A timeline of the Upper Tantallon wildfire
Communications Nova Scotia
A helicopter drops water on a fire hotspot behind Yankeetown Road on June 1, 2023.

11am: Federal public safety minister Bill Blair announces the Canadian Armed Forces will lend support to firefighting efforts in Nova Scotia. That support will include both planning and on-the-ground personnel.

3pm: Halifax mayor Mike Savage tells reporters that municipal staff have begun contacting homeowners in the evacuation zone to provide updates on the status of their homes—but the HRM is not yet rescinding further evacuation orders. “Nobody is going back into an area that is not safe,” he says. Savage also mentions there are active fires at the Waegwoltic Club in Halifax and at 100 Perrin Drive in Fall River.

Premier Tim Houston says the province has started the process for mobilizing volunteer fire departments across the province—but first, he says, those crews need to be trained for fighting wildfires.

3:41pm: Fire crews respond to a separate fire at Ragged Lake.

8pm: The HRM’s emergency management office emails residents whose homes have been damaged or destroyed by the Tantallon fire, telling them it will organize a bus tour of the affected area for 11am Friday. “Unfortunately, you will not be able to leave the bus to walk around your property,” an email provided to CBC News reads.

Friday, June 2

9am: Halifax deputy fire chief Dave Meldrum tells reporters that “fairly severe weather” on Thursday—temperatures reached 33 degrees Celsius in parts of the HRM—made for a “very busy” afternoon and evening for firefighters. Meldrum mentions firefighters from Truro and Cape Breton have joined the effort to extinguish the Tantallon fire. Provincial forestry technician David Steeves adds there was “some minimal growth” in the fire’s overall footprint, but without accurate mapping, it’s difficult to pinpoint the wildfire’s current size. The fire remains 50% contained.

4pm: The HRM rescinds its evacuation order for residents of Lucasville Road living between Sackville Drive and Hammonds Plains, residents of the St. Georges Boulevard area south of Hammonds Plains and the Stillwater Lake area south of Pinetree Crescent. The rest of the evacuation zone remains in place.

Saturday, June 3

8am: As weekend rain arrives, DNR forestry technicial David Steeves tells reporters the Tantallon fire is 85% contained. “We are confident that the fire is not going to make any forward progress,” he says. It’s still estimated at around 950 hectares in size.

Sunday, June 4

10:30am: In a release, the HRM says both the Tantallon and Hammonds Plains fires are 100% contained, with no reported missing people.

2:52pm: An EMO alert advises residents of Glen Arbour that they can return to their homes as of 3pm Sunday. Residents living east of Stillwater Lake can return to their homes as of 4pm.

Monday, June 5

7:55am: The HRM announces that municipal parks and trails, including Point Pleasant Park and Shubie Park, will re-open today. Campfires in parks are banned.

—With files from Matt Stickland. This story is developing. More to come.

Were you displaced by the Tantallon wildfire? Send an email to [email protected], if you’d like to talk about it.

Martin Bauman

Martin Bauman, The Coast's News & Business Reporter, is an award-winning journalist and interviewer, whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Calgary Herald, Capital Daily, and Waterloo Region Record, among other places. In 2020, he was named one of five “emergent” nonfiction writers by the RBC Taylor Prize...
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