HALIFAX — As firefighters spent a second day battling a wildfire in suburban Halifax, some residents from evacuated subdivisions received the grim news that their homes were among those destroyed by the wind-driven flames.
Katherine Tarateski was one of them.
"The RCMP called me this morning to say they went to see our house and it was burned down and they couldn’t find the pets there," she said in an interview Monday afternoon.
The Halifax Regional Municipality said late Monday that preliminary estimates indicate approximately 200 homes or structures have been damaged, based on initial visual inspections by first responders.
Tarateski said she was with her husband Nick and their young daughter Mia at a family gathering on Sunday when they heard about the approaching fires and rushed back to their home in Hammonds Plains to save their dog and cat. But when they arrived police had already blocked their street.
"The house can be rebuilt," she said. "But my pets ... I’m just devastated. It’s hard.”
Fire officials said the out-of-control fire, which started Sunday in nearby Upper Tantallon, has destroyed or damaged dozens of homes, though there hadn't been any reports of deaths or injuries.
Halifax deputy fire Chief David Meldrum said an estimated 14,000 people were told to flee their homes, most of which are about a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown Halifax.
"This is a big fire," he told a news conference Monday near a command post in Upper Tantallon. By early afternoon, Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources confirmed the wildfire covered about eight square kilometres and the wind was gusting from the north up to 40 kilometres per hour, making its progress unpredictable.
Later in the day, Meldrum said firefighters had concentrated on battling spot fires in residential areas in order to protect buildings and prevent the fire's spread.
“This fire has not been contained, this fire is not under control,” he said. “Today it did not spread appreciably and that is thanks to weather, the work of the firefighters on the ground and the work of the air units.” However, Meldrum stressed a change in weather conditions forecast for Tuesday could complicate things.
“We are expecting what we don’t want: strong winds tomorrow, possibly a change in direction and reduced humidity," he said. "Those factors put together increase the risk of these fires reigniting and spreading more quickly.”
David Steeves, a forest resources technician with Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, said the fire was helped by a lack of rain and a wooded area thick with softwood trees, which provide a volatile fuel source. "It was perfect conditions for a fast, quick, dangerous fire,” Steeves said.
No additional evacuations were ordered Monday, despite challenging conditions. "(That offers) some hope that perhaps this situation has stabilized, but it is a dangerous situation,” Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told a news conference. "Many residents will be dealing with significant losses." The area under mandatory evacuation orders covered about 100 square kilometres.
In all, about 200 firefighters were battling the fire on Monday. Two helicopters from the Natural Resources Department were to be joined Monday by a water bomber from Newfoundland and Labrador.
Volunteer firefighter Brett Tetanish fought back tears as he described arriving late Sunday at a house fire in the Westwood subdivision, the scene where the first fires were reported around 3 p.m.
“There were fires on both sides of the road, structures on fire. There were cars abandoned and burnt in the middle of the road,” he said in an interview outside the command post.
At around 10 p.m., Tetanish spotted a home where flames were licking at a back wall. He and his team of volunteers extinguished the fire, then tore out parts of walls and ceilings to make sure the fire had not spread.
“It was a good feeling,” he said, his face streaked with soot, dirt and sweat. “We were able to save somebody’s house after seeing so much destruction. It’s kind of an emotional roller-coaster.”
Tetanish, a fire captain who has a full-time job as an electrician, said the wildfire was the worst he has seen in 32 years of firefighting. “My body is sore. My joints are sore. My back is sore and I think the rest of my crew feels much the same.”
With no rain in the forecast, Meldrum said it could take the rest of the week to subdue the flames. "We have a lot of work to do today, this week — for many days," he said. "Residents must be prepared to remain out of their homes for several days at least."
Ken Charsley, who has lived in the Westwood Hills subdivision for 23 years, said that by the time he had to leave his home on Sunday at 4 p.m., the sky was "just black behind us.” The 74-year-old resident said the need for an evacuation order was obvious.
“I was born and raised in northern Ontario's (Sudbury area), and when you see fire you get out," he said in an interview Monday. "If you’re not going to stay and fight it, leave.”
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Public Safety Minister Bill Blair had spoken with his Nova Scotia counterparts on the weekend. "We're going to be there for the people of Nova Scotia as they deal with these terrible wildfires," Trudeau said.
Outside the Halifax region, there were seven other wildfires still burning, including the 62-square-kilometre Barrington Lake fire in Shelburne County. The fire in southwestern Nova Scotia remained out of control Monday, and more than 400 people had been evacuated from their homes.
"Some structures have been destroyed and others are threatened, but there are no firm details on the numbers yet," the Department of Natural Resources said in a statement, confirming that 80 firefighters were being helped by one water bomber from Newfoundland and Labrador.
Later in the day, Premier Tim Houston announced the province will provide $500 through the Red Cross to every household required to evacuate because of the fires in the Halifax area and Shelburne County.
"We are definitely a province that is on edge right now,” Houston said during a briefing in Dartmouth, N.S. “I’ve seen the images … and I’ve seen the reality of what’s happening, the damage that’s being caused, and it’s very scary."
The premier also announced the province will pay the mileage for volunteer firefighters who travel to another community to fight fires, and he imposed a provincewide burn ban until June 25 for any area within 300 metres of a wooded area.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 29, 2023.
— With files from Keith Doucette
Michael Tutton and Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press