Halifax-area residents board buses to view dozens of homes destroyed by wildfires

Halifax-area residents board buses to view dozens of homes destroyed by wildfires
THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Communications Nova Scotia
A helicopter drops water on a hot spot at a wildfire in Tantallon, N.S. in this Thursday, June 1, 2023 handout photo.

Scores of Halifax-area residents whose homes were destroyed by wildfires boarded buses Friday to get a look at what little remains of where they used to live.

Katherine Tarateski, a local real estate agent who lost her home during the fire, said she had already seen images of her house in ruins. But she said she wanted to provide support to a neighbour who would be seeing the remains of her home for the first time.

“I’m going to support my friend because she was living alone, and she doesn’t want to be alone when she sees what’s left there,” Tarateski said in an interview. “It’s very emotional.”

Before the three transit buses left a parking lot in Upper Tantallon, N.S., Red Cross workers hovered nearby, providing bottles of water and hugs to some of the passengers. Local resident Jody Stuart, who also lost his home to the fire, said he didn’t want to be a part of the grim bus tour.

“I need to physically go and do my thing with family and friends beside me,” said Stuart, whose nine-year-old daughter was sitting behind him in his pickup truck, cuddling a stuffed dog.

“I’ve done a lot of hugging and crying,” Stuart said. “(But) I don’t plan on leaving my community, as I love my community.”

The contractor said his home in the Yankeetown subdivision contained all of his tools, which are now gone. “There are just two houses still standing (on his street),” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Bill Moore, the municipality’s executive director of community safety, told a news conference that more than 200 people were expected to take part in similar tours in the coming days.

The wildfire that broke out Sunday in Upper Tantallon raced through a number of subdivisions and consumed about 200 structures, including 151 homes. In all, more than 16,000 people were evacuated from homes and businesses northwest of the port city’s downtown. The evacuation orders have yet to be lifted.

“We’re very sensitive to the trauma this may cause people,” Moore said, adding that the first people admitted into the evacuation zone would be those whose homes were destroyed by the flames. Next, residents whose properties suffered less damage will be invited into the area to see their residences.

The Tantallon wildfire was among four wildfires in Nova Scotia still considered out of control on Friday. But 50 per cent of the Halifax fire was contained by firefighters as of Thursday.

Deputy fire Chief Roy Howlett said Friday that some of the damaged and destroyed homes were still burning, and he stressed that the affected neighbourhoods are still part of an active fire scene.

“I was out there last night,” he said. “The smoke was very thick. You could taste it.”

As scattered showers moved across parts of the province early Friday, fire officials warned that the precipitation wouldn’t do much to slow down the biggest fires.

“While it was welcome, it will hold us for only a number of hours,” Dave Steeves, a forest technician with the Department of Natural Resources, told a morning briefing at the command post in Upper Tantallon.

“Little embers can hide. We’re looking in rotten stumps. We’re looking under piles of moss, under big chunks of rock. We get a phenomenon called holdover — those small embers hide … and when you think everything’s fine, they can come back to the surface and you can get a reignition.”

Still, the forecast was calling for steady rain Friday night and into Saturday.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said that’s what he has been praying for. “If you happen to know the Almighty, talk to her,” Savage told a later briefing. “Put in a good word for us.”

In the southwestern corner of the province, a much larger wildfire continued to burn out of control in Shelburne County, where 6,700 people have been evacuated from their homes — about half of the municipality’s population.

The Barrington Lake wildfire, which started Saturday, continued to grow on Thursday, reaching 200 square kilometres — the largest recorded wildfire in the province’s history. It has consumed 50 homes and cottages.

On Thursday, a small fleet of water bombers took aim at the big fire amid soaring temperatures and extremely dry conditions. They also tried to douse a fire that started Wednesday south of the town of Shelburne, which prompted another series of evacuations in the county.

Meanwhile, the provincial government said six more aircraft would be flying in from the United States on Friday and over the weekend. As well, an unspecified number of firefighters from the U.S. and Costa Rica were also on their way.

In Ottawa, federal officials announced Thursday that more than 300 firefighters from the United States and South Africa are heading to Canada to battle what has become an unprecedented wildfire season.

Micheal Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2023.

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