’85 per cent contained’: Rain offering helping hand for crews fighting wildfires in N.S.

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Nova Scotia wildfires: Halifax-area fire 85% contained and not expected to spread, officials say
As Nova Scotia is getting much-needed rain on Saturday, a wildfire burning northwest of Halifax is now 85 per cent contained, emergency officials said in an update. "We have changed from 'out of control' to a state of being held," said David Steeves, a technician of forest resources with the Department of Natural Resources – Jun 3, 2023

As firefighters begin to receive help from mother nature during the fight against wildfires throughout Nova Scotia, officials announced Saturday morning that the fire in the Tantallon area is no longer deemed out of control. Though, it may still be a while before the blaze is completely extinguished.

As response crews make substantial progress in suppressing several other wildfires that have destroyed historic amounts of land, “cautious optimism” seemed to be the phrase of the day during the province’s afternoon press briefing.

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston couldn’t have been more thrilled to see rain in the forecast.

“If you step outside, you will see something beautiful …  rain,” he said as he spoke from the Municipality of Barrington in Shelburne County, where the largest wildfire in the province’s recorded history is still burning at 24,980 hectares on Saturday. It is the last wildfire in Nova Scotia that is still considered out of control.

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Houston reiterated that despite the precipitation, a province-wide ban on burning and travelling into the woods remains in effect. He added that his team will also review evacuation orders over the next few hours and determine if recommendations can be made for municipalities to allow certain residents to return to their homes.

“That meeting usually happens towards the end of the day,” he said. “The firefighting teams, the instant command centres, they’ll look at how the day’s progressing, they’ll look at what’s next, and then they’ll see where it’s safe.”

The Premier also said schools will remain closed in Shelburne County on Monday and Tuesday.

Bill Lawlor from the Canadian Red Cross announced that a total of 2.6 million has been distributed so far from the $500-per-household support for evacuated residents that was announced by the province on Monday.

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“We’ve been able to distribute $500 to 4250 households,” he said, adding that the Red Cross is continuing to disperse payments and work through a list of about 7500 registrants.

“Exactly what the doctor ordered”

Bob Robichaud, Warning Preparedness Meteorologist for Environment and Climate Change Canada, said after dry weather conditions produced a difficult week, the continued rainfall is “exactly what the doctor ordered.”

“It’d be difficult to really ask for more than what we’re getting now,” he said.

He said the precipitation is widespread throughout the province, with the Halifax area already receiving an excess of 25 millimeters on Saturday, with other areas in the centre of the province exceeding 50 millimeters.

Robichaud said the rain doesn’t stop there, as forecasts project a steady continuation of rain throughout the coming week.

“It’s looking like most of the models now are suggesting widespread areas of over 100 millimeters exactly in the areas that require it,” he said with relief.

Robichaud said there continue to be improvements regarding air quality, as a northeasterly flow moves most of the smoke offshore.

“There is a small sliver along the southwestern tip of the province who may still experience some air quality issues, but for the rest of the province, that air is clearing out quite nicely,” he said.

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Tantallon fire is ’85 per cent contained’

David Steeves, technician of forest resources for Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, said that the 950-hectare wildfire in Tantallon is now considered ’85 per cent contained’, and is not expected to spread at this time. Despite the promising updates, he said the fire is unlikely to be declared ‘out’ for even weeks or months.

“We’re not going to say this fire is out until we are sure,” he said. “We need to check all those rocks, we need to check all those rotten stumps, we need to check all those little places where those little embers can hide to make sure, so folks can feel safe in their homes.”

“The rain we’re getting now is going to help the suppression issues,” he said, as the intensity of precipitation began picking up during Saturday’s media briefing near the Tantallon wildfire site. “There’s still a significant amount of work that needs to be done,” Steeves said.

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He said despite heavy rain throughout the day, reignition remains a concern.

“When we get a little bit of rain, we are so hopeful it’s going to make a major impact, but sometimes that lulls us into a bit of a false sense of security,” he said. “Given the terrain and the fuels that we’re dealing with in this particular area, there could be embers hiding in places that this water is not going to get to, so that’s why it takes such an extensive amount of time for us to declare a fire ‘out’.”

Steeves said since the Tantallon fire’s status is now labelled as ‘being held’, any additional resources received will be redirected to Shelburne County, where crews are battling a 23,000-hectare blaze which is now considered the largest recorded wildfire in the province’s history.

In a video released by the provincial government shortly after Saturday’s briefing, Steeves explained what it means for a fire to be considered ‘held’.

“With wildland fire, it’s always changing and one small variable in the environment can change the dynamics of everything that you’re dealing with,” he said. “So, if a fire is being held, all things being equal, and nothing changes, then there will be no forward progression.”

Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Deputy Chief David Meldrum said his crews will receive greater benefits from lighter rainfall conditions over an extended period of time, as opposed to short bursts of downpours.

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Environment Canada has forecasted rainfall to persist in the Halifax area for the coming days.

“This is not a heavy downpour that runs off and disappears, this will soak into the ground more effectively, we need days of this rain,” he said.

After rain began trickling down throughout the province on Friday evening, Environment Canada forecast 1o-20mm of precipitation in the Halifax area for Saturday with more rainfall expected for next week.

Although wet conditions are being welcomed with open arms by those working to suppress the fire, Meldrum said the precipitation may present new obstacles for responders.

“They face additional hazards. Slip and fall is a very significant hazard in the woods right now. They are going to be very dirty, they’re going to be wet, they’re going to be cold … so cold injury has become a risk for our firefighters today,” he said. “We welcome this rain, but it’s going to be a tough working day.”

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He added that the area where the fire has had an impact is still under evacuation orders and he hasn’t received any information yet indicating that residents will be allowed back into their homes on Saturday.

“We know you want to be in your home … we’re working as fast as we can, we’re going to make sure that when you come home, you’ll have a safe, livable community to return to,” Meldrum said.

At another briefing later in the day, Meldrum announced that the 10,224 people in the Halifax area still haven’t returned to their homes as a result of the fire.

The fire in Tantallon has destroyed about 200 buildings, including 150 homes, and forced the evacuation of more than 16,400 people. Some of the evacuees were able to tour part of the area destroyed by the fire Friday.

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The fire at Barrington Lake in Shelburne County has destroyed at least 50 homes or cottages and forced more than half of the county’s residents to evacuate. As of Friday evening, 90 firefighters from the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables and more than 40 volunteer responders were on the scene.

An aircraft (centre) disperses a mix of water and fire retardant over a fire near Barrington Lake in Shelburne County, N.S. in this Wednesday, May 31, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Communications Nova Scotia.

There have been 210 wildfires this year, with a total burned area of 26,680 hectares. There are currently 5 active fires and only one that remains out of control.

Dave Rockwood, Public Information Officer for the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables in Shelburne, said in addition he was “thrilled” to announce that both the Lake Road fire, also in Shelburne County, and the Pubnico Fire in nearby Yarmouth County are no longer considered ‘out of control’ and are being held.

“It’s been a good day today, we’re having a good day,” said Rockwood.

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