Halifax explores new emergency roads for subdivision ravaged by summer wildfire

Click to play video: 'Halifax council receives report examining government’s response to N.S. wildfires'
Halifax council receives report examining government’s response to N.S. wildfires
A report aimed at examining government’s response to the Nova Scotia wildfires will be brought before Halifax Regional Council this week. The report looked at the municipality’s strengths and weaknesses during the fires and provided recommendations for better outcomes in the future. Vanessa Wright reports. – Nov 27, 2023

Six months after a massive wildfire spread through an Upper Tantallon subdivision and destroyed more than 150 homes, Halifax Regional Council will be presented with a staff report on Tuesday that provides several options for developing a new emergency exit in the area.

The report, which was commissioned in the summer, recommends that council approve a plan for staff to move ahead with the engagement, planning, and design process for a new emergency-only connection between the Westwood Hills subdivision and the nearby Highway 103.

“Highway 103 is an attractive option for an emergency egress due to its high-capacity nature — during an emergency, with appropriate traffic control, a connection to Highway 103 would have the potential to enable a significant number of residents to evacuate the subdivision with a low risk of encountering congested traffic conditions,” the report read.

Staff identified three potential locations for the new exit by studying the topography, connection lengths, property ownership, highway access, and maintenance requirements for the proposed area.

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Considering that all access is currently located at the east end of the subdivision, at Hammonds Plains Road, staff determined an exit further west could be beneficial “from a network perspective” to ensure distance between roads during an emergency.

“However, the western end of the subdivision is considerably farther from Highway 103 than the eastern end, making a potential egress road longer and less practical,” the report said.

“Despite the challenging terrain in the area, it does appear to be physically feasible to develop a roadway connection between Westwood Hills and Highway 103,” the report continued while sharing diagrams of potential locations for an emergency egress.

Three main emergency road options proposed by municipal staff.
Three main emergency road options proposed by municipal staff. Halifax Regional Municipality

Offering three viable options, the report said the easternmost exit would be about 500 metres in length and provide the shortest connection. The other two options would increase the length to about one kilometre.

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“There are other potential options further west, however, the required length would increase considerably, likely limiting their practicality,” the report said.

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The lengthier suggestions include developing a two-kilometre road connection to Highland Park, a neighbouring subdivision, or a three-kilometre connection north to Upper Hammonds Plains at Pockwood Road through some privately owned lands and undeveloped, wooded terrain.

In addition to challenges surrounding length and access to land, The Halifax Green Network Plan (HGNP) identifies certain wooded areas between Westwood Hills and Upper Hammonds Plains as an important ecological corridor.

“Ultimately, the goal of the HNGP would be to preserve the corridor and not disturb it,” the report said.

The lengthier road options including an adjacent subdivision and Upper Hammonds Plains.
The lengthier road options including an adjacent subdivision and Upper Hammonds Plains. Halifax Regional Municipality

One final option would be developing an exit through Nova Scotia Power service roads, which the report described as being in “varied condition.”

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“Nova Scotia Power has indicated that they would require significant upgrades to be capable of serving as part of an emergency egress route,” the report said, adding that the area is challenged by its four-kilometre length and lack of direct access to Highway 103.

The report noted that, as of now, Westwood Hills, where the blaze initially broke out in May, has two street connections that lead to Hammonds Plains Road. The existence of these exit points technically meets current municipal access requirements, but there are limits that potentially “compromise access in the case of an emergency.”

One issue is that both of the exits aren’t far apart, as close as 170 metres near the St. Margaret’s Centre, increasing the risk of both routes being impacted simultaneously during an emergency and therefore threatening the ability to exit from the area.

In addition, both exits lead to the same location, which could cause a “bottleneck” scenario that impacts people’s ability to evacuate promptly.

“Residents evacuating the area were challenged by rapidly worsening conditions and were constrained by limited subdivision access points and roadway capacity on Hammonds Plains Road,” the report said, referencing the delays and gridlocked traffic that residents experienced when attempting to escape the area during the fire.

The wildfire, which broke out on May 28, destroyed about 200 buildings, including 151 homes, and forced more than 16,000 people to evacuate from their homes.

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Pending approval from councillors on Tuesday, municipal staff will engage with property owners in the desired areas, request approval from the province for a connection to Highway 103, and create a preliminary and detailed design of the emergency exit.

“The timeline and budget required for potential construction will be dependent on the selected alignment,” the report said.

The report also noted that due to its crucial nature, the project could be considered a “strong candidate” for the federal government’s Infrastructure Canada’s Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.

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