She outran a raging wildfire. Now, this N.S. woman demands faster alerts

Click to play video: 'N.S. resident reflects on wildfires one year later'
N.S. resident reflects on wildfires one year later
It’s been one year since the Tantallon wildfire broke out, destroying 151 homes and forcing more than 16,000 people to evacuate. Now, a Nova Scotia woman who says she was forced to run for her life during the blaze is speaking out to prevent others from enduring a similar experience. Skye Bryden-Blom reports – May 28, 2024

One year after a massive wildfire destroyed several communities in an area just northwest of Halifax, concerns remain regarding Nova Scotia’s ability to communicate with residents and other officials in emergency situations.

On May 28, 2023, a wildfire broke out in the community of Upper Tantallon amid a large swath of suburban neighbourhoods surrounded by woodlands. That fire burned 969 hectares, destroyed 151 homes, and forced more than 16,000 residents to flee the area.

Another fire broke out in the neighbouring community of Hammonds Plains during the same period.

Jenny Saulnier, who was living in the impacted Highland Park subdivision in Hammonds Plains, was at home with her dog when she first saw flames sweeping toward her backyard. She said what occurred next was akin to “a scene from a horror movie.”

“I immediately felt like I needed to run for my life,” she said during an interview with Global News on Monday.

Story continues below advertisement

She said an emergency alert informing her neighbourhood to evacuate was delivered at 6:09 p.m., about 40 minutes after the majority of residents had already left — when the community was already engulfed in flames. She said her house began burning down at about 5:25 p.m. that evening.

Saulnier said the way matters were handled that day made her lose confidence in a system that she expected to provide her more security than she ultimately received.

“I don’t feel like the people who are meant to protect me are going to keep me safe,” she said.

“Neighbours helping neighbours is the only reason the subdivision got out.”

Saulnier’s backyard, one year after the wildfire destroyed her home. Skye Bryden-Blom

In an interview with Global News on Monday, John Lohr, Nova Scotia’s minister responsible for the emergency management office, said his team has conducted a “deep dive” into the Alert Ready system utilized by the provincial government.

Story continues below advertisement

In response, he said more municipal officials have since been granted access to the system in hopes of speeding up the province’s ability to communicate with residents in emergency situations.

“The system itself belongs to the federal government. It doesn’t belong to us. There’s very specific training on that and we’re increasing the number of municipal officials that can be trained,” he said.

He said the province is also paying for trunked mobile radio services to improve correspondence among first responders.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

“The reality is emergency situations start somewhere, and it’s not possible for us to sometimes be in front of that. We’re reacting. We’re trying to get better. We recognize the issue.”

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

Escaping a burning neighbourhood

Reflecting back on last year’s events, Saulnier said she first read online that a home had caught fire in the nearby Westwood subdivision. She admits she wasn’t too concerned for her safety due to her distance and an entire lake separating her neighbourhood from the community where the fire was spreading.

Story continues below advertisement

She said there was no perception of significant danger in her area at the time, despite the sky beginning to fill with thicker smoke.

At 5:13 p.m., she said an emergency alert advised residents to evacuate from the Westwood subdivision, which Saulnier said induced “a bit more panic.”

“The smoke was heavy, the sky was pretty orange, and I thought ‘I should pack my bags and get out’ but not because I had to,” she said, referring to recommendations made in the first alert.

Then things began to escalate.

“When I looked out my back window, the fire was raging in my backyard,” she explained, describing scenes of flames climbing her backyard trees while she scrambled to gather her belongings.

In five minutes, Saulnier grabbed her dog, shoved as many essentials as she could grab into two duffle bags, and made a run for her truck.

“I ran back for another bag (but) I couldn’t breathe running to the front door because the smoke was so thick,” she continued.

“I could not have gone up a third time. I could barely run to the truck as I didn’t have oxygen because of the smoke. I could see, but it was hazy.”

Story continues below advertisement
Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia wildfire: Raging blaze forces 16,000+ Nova Scotians from their homes'
Nova Scotia wildfire: Raging blaze forces 16,000+ Nova Scotians from their homes

Shortly after, she found herself at a traffic standstill amongst her neighbours who were simultaneously fleeing from the worsening conditions.

“You could see the fire raging behind us. It (was) moving so incredibly fast and unpredictably. As I’m driving out of my driveway, there are random fires in places, ditches, and people’s front yards,” she said.

She said she called 911 as she was stuck in traffic, because she started to believe she wouldn’t make it out in time.

Despite the rapidly expanding blaze, she was provided some insight into how slowly information was travelling when she spoke with a 911 emergency operator

“They had no idea there were fires in our subdivisions. He didn’t know what to tell me, so he said, ‘If the fire’s going to start coming near you, you’re going to have to exit your vehicle and go on foot,'” she recalled.

Story continues below advertisement

Fortunately, a fire truck arrived in her subdivision as she was making her way out.

Through her home security system, she then received a notification that her house was completely on fire.

“I got out five minutes before my house burned down,” she said.

Rebuilding, returning

One year separated from the events of that Sunday afternoon, Saulnier said her family is rebuilding and is expected to move into a new home in June — on the same property where tragedy struck in 2023.

Despite returning to the area where her family lived for the past 16 years, she said her new residence on the property will not contain the same sentimental value.

“Everything that we loved dearly; they’re gone. Those things are what made my house feel like a home and all of that is gone,” she said.

“I don’t have anything sentimental from my grandmother, great-grandmother, nothing. All of those things are what makes a home and having pieces of your family in it. Now we’ll come back to everything (being) new, but it doesn’t have meaning.”

Saulnier said her family has been living in an apartment on Larry Uteck Boulevard as they wait for the house to be rebuilt in Hammonds Plains.

Story continues below advertisement

“That’s been fine, we’re well-adjusted to it. We’ve felt nice and safe there,” she said.

“After that event, you feel responsible for your own safety.”

Looking ahead, Saulnier said she hopes improvements will be made to the province’s ability to communicate in situations when time is of the essence.

“Give us a heads up, let us know when we’re in danger,” she said.

“Let us know when we have to evacuate and not feel like we have to run for our lives and live in that nightmare again.”

Click to play video: 'Why Nova Scotia faces a long, hard wildfire recovery'
Why Nova Scotia faces a long, hard wildfire recovery

— with files from Skye Bryden-Blom

Sponsored content