Tuesday winds in Tantallon bring “dangerous” fire risk, officials warn | News | Halifax, Nova Scotia | 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.

Tuesday winds in Tantallon bring “dangerous” fire risk, officials warn

A Tantallon-area fire has displaced more than 16,400 Haligonians, and all of Nova Scotia is under a fire ban. Meanwhile, the cause of the blaze is still unknown.

Brad George was in the midst of his weekly Sunday clean-up when his Highland Park home began to fill with smoke. He could see it, smell it in the air. He looked out the front window. Ash fell on his lawn. Flames licked above the trees across the street.

“I could just see this big plume of smoke right outside,” he says, speaking with The Coast at the Black Point & Area Community Centre on Monday morning. “I just started grabbing what I could and went outside, started putting stuff in the car. My neighbours were all doing the same thing.

“Everybody was just kind of in agreement to get out of there as fast as we could… But it was a real logjam to get out of there.”

George isn’t sure how much, if any, of his house will remain when he’s allowed to return. Not that he knows when he can return, either. He’s one of roughly 16,429 Haligonians who have been forced to evacuate after a growing wildfire in the Upper Tantallon region prompted more than a dozen schools to close and the HRM to declare a weeklong state of local emergency. Fire crews have arrived from Hantsport, Brooklyn, Windsor and West Hants to battle the blaze. Two water bomber planes have flown in from St. John’s, NL.

In George’s 12 years in the neighbourhood, he’s never seen anything like it. As subdivisions go, he says, it’s normally wet this time of year.

“I mean, there’s little lakes and ponds, like a lot of neighbourhoods around here,” he says. “It doesn’t seem like there would be that big of a fire risk—but obviously, it doesn’t take much to dry things out.”

‘Absolutely a significant challenge,’ deputy chief says

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday morning, David Steeves of the Nova Scotia department of natural resources says southwesterly winds and warmer temperatures could present a “dangerous" situation for dousing the flames that have spread from Upper Tantallon to Pockwock and Hammonds Plains.

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Communications Nova Scotia
A wooded area in Tantallon, after firefighters extinguished flames.

“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,” Steeves told reporters in a press conference at the fire response command post set up at the St. Margaret’s Centre. “There’s going to be an increased dangerous situation for the firefighters that are on the ground. Safety is going to be paramount in all our tactical decisions.”

That echoed some of the fears Halifax deputy fire chief David Meldrum shared a day earlier. Ash still falling behind him, Meldrum told reporters Monday that more than 100 firefighters joined the response Sunday night. He cautioned that firefighters still “have a lot of work to do” before the risk is over.

“That was really fast, really hot fire,” Meldrum said Monday, noting that there’s still “unburned fuel” in some of the areas the fire already tore through.

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Government of Nova Scotia
A helicopter responds to the wildfire in Tantallon by dropping water on the affected area.

As of Monday morning, Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office has issued evacuation orders for residents of Tantallon’s Westwood subdivision, Yankeetown subdivision, Haliburton Hills, Glen Arbour, Pockwock Road, White Hills subdivision, Lucasville Road extending to Sackville Drive, Maplewood, Voyageur Way, the McCabe Lake area and Indigo Shores. Traffic lights were out on Hammonds Plains Road, between Highway 103 and Upper Tantallon. Some businesses and services—including the St. Margaret’s Bay Blood Collection—were closed due to smoke.

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Martin Bauman / The Coast
An RCMP officer directs traffic at the intersection of Highway 103 and Hammonds Plains Road on Monday, May 29, 2023.

Karrie-Ann Buchanan, who owns and operates the Woodhaven RV Park on Hammonds Plains Road with her partner, Bernie, tells The Coast that while their property appears unscathed for now—the RCMP let them past the barricade this morning to check on things—they’ve been told it’s a minute by minute situation with the fires nearby.

Five emergency alerts went out across the HRM during the afternoon and evening of May 28, and into the early morning hours of May 29, calling for residents to take their pets with them if called to evacuate. In some places, horses were freed from their stables. The grey-black clouds of smoke spread across the Halifax peninsula and could be seen from Dartmouth’s waterfront.

Speaking with reporters Monday morning, Meldrum noted that a full inventory of damaged and destroyed buildings “may take some time,” but it’s being organized with the HRM and the province.

“We certainly don’t know the number now, which suggests that the number is likely to be higher” than the initial 10 homes reported, he says.

“This is absolutely a significant challenge for us… These fires don’t simply extinguish today and you’re done,” Meldrum adds. “There’s significant work that’s required to come in and dig any hidden fire to make sure there’s no smoldering fire that’s going to reignite.”

Speaking later Monday afternoon, Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston pegged the number of damaged buildings as in the “dozens.” That figure was upgraded to roughly 200 by Monday evening, according to preliminary estimates from the HRM.

Unclear how wildfire started

As of yet, Halifax Fire has not determined the cause of the blaze. Speaking Monday, Meldrum told reporters the first calls of a fire his department fielded were near Juneberry Lane. Nova Scotia’s department of natural resources renewables will be leading an investigation.

On Sunday, the department described the conditions as a “rapidly moving fire,” involving “multiple structure and forest fires.” All of Nova Scotia is now under a burn ban, premier Tim Houston told reporters at a news conference in Dartmouth on Monday afternoon.

At the same afternoon conference, held jointly with Halifax mayor Mike Savage, Houston told reporters he expects the province’s evacuation order will last “for days.”

click to enlarge Tuesday winds in Tantallon bring “dangerous” fire risk, officials warn (5)
Nova Scotia government
Premier Tim Houston addresses reporters on May 29, 2023, a day after a wildfire spread across Upper Tantallon.

“We know this is incredibly stressful for people, not knowing what they may be returning to and certainly not knowing when they can return,” he said.

Savage told reporters that he’d spoken with prime minister Justin Trudeau and public safety minister Bill Blair, and that he’d been “assured of support in whatever is needed” in the days ahead.

As of 10pm Sunday, the Halifax Regional Centre for Education had announced closures of the following schools for Monday, due to wildfire evacuations: Bay View High, Hammonds Plains Consolidated, Kingswood Elementary, Tantallon Junior Elementary, Tantallon Senior Elementary and Madeline Symonds Middle School. That extended to five more schools by Monday morning: Five Bridges Junior High, St. Margaret’s Bay Elementary, Sackville Heights Elementary, Sackville Heights Junior High and Charles P. Allen High School.

“We know this is incredibly stressful for people, not knowing what they may be returning to and certainly not knowing when they can return.” - Tim Houston

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Savage declared a local state of emergency late Sunday night, which grants the HRM access to certain emergency discretionary funds and the ability to mobilize other supports. It will stay in place for the next seven days, unless otherwise lifted or extended.

Officials have yet to issue a dollar estimate of the damages caused by the fire. Deputy fire chief Meldrum says there are no reports of injuries or missing persons, however.

The HRM has opened comfort centres at Black Point & Area Community Centre, the Canada Games Centre and Beaver Bank Kinsac Community Centre. There, volunteers are handing out Gatorade, water bottles, toiletries and food to those displaced by the fire.

—This story is developing. More to come.


About The Author

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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