‘Hoping and praying’: Halifax wildfire evacuees wait for word on their homes

Click to play video: 'Halifax wildfires: Officials expect wind shift which could lead to ‘increased danger’'
Halifax wildfires: Officials expect wind shift which could lead to ‘increased danger’
DNRR forest resources technician David Steeves said during an update on Tuesday morning that there "was no significant growth on the fire perimetre" overnight, but a shift in winds could lead to an "increased danger situation" for firefighters. The heat from the sun is also expected to change the situation on the ground, Steeves said – May 30, 2023

Sit and wait. That’s all Chris Hillman and his family can do right now.

They’re among the more-than 16,400 evacuees in the Halifax-area wildfire that’s burning in the communities of Tantallon and Hammonds Plains, and for now, the Hillmans don’t even know if their house is still standing.

“We’re held up in a motel just taking it hour by hour, minute by minute, waiting for updates,” he said.

“Hoping and praying everybody is ok and the house is still there. We don’t know really what the state of anything is to return to.”

On Tuesday afternoon, the municipality said an estimated 200 structures had been destroyed by the fires that began Sunday — about 150 of which are homes.

A full assessment of the damage can’t even be confirmed yet.

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The municipality is working on a plan to support affected residents, but that process could take several days or longer.

“People are obviously concerned about their property. There are things that they want, but there are still very dangerous areas around these houses. And we cannot have people going into communities that are not safe,” Mayor Mike Savage told reporters.

Click to play video: 'Mayor Mike Savage provides update on wildfires'
Mayor Mike Savage provides update on wildfires

“I understand why they want to do it, but in the safety interests of themselves and of those who are fighting this fire and who are responsible for their safety, please do not go into an evacuated area.

Cathy O’Toole, the municipality’s CAO, toured the affected area with RCMP earlier in the day and told reporters the fire has left “visible scars” and a “lasting impact” in the community.

She said she was struck by the “randomness” of the fire’s destruction because while one house may have been destroyed, the one beside it was left unscathed.

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“Second thing that struck me was the speed at which some people had left because it looked like people had kind of downed stuff and evacuated very quickly,” she said.

Hillman, his wife, and two young daughters know exactly what that means.

They literally fled from their home in the subdivision of Haliburton Hills on Sunday evening — an experience he called “sheer panic.”

It was the sound of the emergency alerts going off on their phones that prompted them to get out. That, along with the growing concern in the neighbourhood and increasingly thick smoke.

“It was just kind of pandemonium, panic, pandemonium, get out of there as fast as possible,” he said.

In the rush, they left behind their dog and cat in the house. They’re still waiting to retrieve their pets.

As news of the destruction spread, anxiety levels have gone up.

“Some of their friends have lost their homes,” Hillman said of his daughters, aged eight and 11.

“It’s really scary, really scary stuff.”

A water bomber plane flies through heavy smoke as an out-of-control wildfire in a suburban community outside of Halifax quickly spread, engulfing multiple homes and forcing the evacuation of local residents on Sunday, May 28, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese.

In the meantime, Hillman has been dealing with his insurance company, and anticipates the initial upfront costs will be great — whatever the damage or condition of their home is.

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It’s a process so many others are going through right now in the province.

“Just look out for each other in this time, you know? We have to be compassionate towards each other,” he said.

“And yeah, that’s about it.”

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