Editor’s note: This story contains images that may be upsetting to some readers. Discretion is advised.
Media were invited Tuesday to view the wreckage left behind by a wildfire that swept through the Halifax-area communities of Tantallon and Hammonds Plains over the last week.
The fire, which broke out on May 28, destroyed about 200 buildings, including 151 homes, and forced the evacuation of more than 16,400 people. Many evacuees have since been able to return home, but about 4,000 remain displaced.
The fire is now under control and 100 per cent contained, and is not expected to spread further. As of Tuesday, it still measured around 950 hectares.
During a grim tour through the most impacted area Tuesday, piles of charred rubble could be seen where houses once stood, with burned out cars parked in driveways.
Dave Meldrum, deputy fire chief for Halifax Regional Municipality, spoke with media on Carmel Crescent, about three kilometres from where the fire started on Juneberry Lane in the Westwood subdivision.
The fire had moved east to the neighbourhood where he was standing, making its final journey up a steep hill to destroy all but a few homes on the crescent.
“The fire moved very quickly to this neighbourhood and severely damaged the properties here,” Meldrum said. “Many, many destroyed homes, very, very tragically, and we think of community residents at this time.”
A few scorched music sheets drifted in a watery ditch alongside the road, along with pages from a 1987 yearbook.
A wheelbarrow filled with blackened plants, with a shovel leaning on it, sat in the yard of a burned residence. It appeared the arms of the wheelbarrow had been dropped to the ground as someone departed rapidly.
The tour traveled to Yankeetown Road, where RCMP officers were still controlling access, into an area where the damage was more interspersed.
In some locations a numbers of homes were intact, and nearby there would be piles of burned rubble.
Meldrum said he’s heard questions about the “random” nature of the fire — why were some houses destroyed but others were left alone?
He said there are “many reasons.”
“Flame moves with topography and wind — and those are important variables — but it’s also really important to understand that as this wildfire moved, like all wildfires, it threw embers up into the air, which landed hundreds of metres in front of the flame front,” said Meldrum.
“Embers landing on a neighbourhood will ignite objects in the yards, around the homes, on the back decks, and they’re small fires when they start, but they can quickly grow if they’re not controlled.”
At the third stop, on Bonsai Road, also in the Yankeetown neighbourhood, Meldrum pointed out a fire break about five metres wide cut by bulldozers brought in by the provincial Department of Natural Resources.
The fire had spread into the area through Sunday and was held at this location by provincial and municipal firefighters.
“Had the fire progressed beyond this point certainly we had properties in the (nearby) Pockwock Road area and into (the suburb of) Bedford that were at risk,” said Meldrum.
“There’s still work going on here. Part of the strategy to control the fire was to bring in a large volume of heavy equipment and scrape away the soil.”
‘We’ve never encountered an event of this scale’
In addition to the physical devastation left behind by the wildfire, the incident has also impacted those called to respond to it.
In an interview, Cole Jean, the volunteer fire station captain in Upper Tantallon, was one of the first responders to the fire on May 28.
“I was here day one, I was here minute one,” he said.
He and other volunteer firefighters responded that afternoon around 3:30 p.m.
“I encountered heavy smoke, and a lot of flame, and a lot of people screaming for help,” he said. “And we did our absolute best to give that what we could.”
Jean said he had never seen a fire situation as serious. While the firefighters train for two hours every week — from vehicle extrication to fighting house fires — nothing could have prepared them for what they saw.
“This is an event that you talk about … But we’ve never encountered an event of this scale in my volunteer fire experience,” he said.
“The emotional side, preparing for that … I wasn’t sure how to emotionally prepare members for what they’re going to see.
“Most members here have fought house fires before, or they fought a vehicle fire before … but this kind of fire, this is something that most here, not really to my knowledge, ever had to do.”
The Tema Foundation, an organization that focuses on mental health and wellness for first responders and front-line workers, has launched a “Helping our Heroes” fund for those who responded to the fire.
People can donate toward buying food, entertainment, crisis counselling and mental health education events for firefighters.
“We can spread the word to make sure people recognize just how many people went out and fight these fires, and supported the community, to try to make this as easy as possible in a bad situation,” said Adam Conter, a Tema Foundation board member.
“We want to make sure that people know it’s OK to not be OK.”
He said more than 50 first responders involved in the firefighting efforts in the last nine days have reached out to Tema, which he says is a “wonderful number.”
“Whether it was one or whether it was 300, anybody reaching out just encourages the next person to reach out,” he said.
Jean called the initiative “amazing,” and highlighted the importance of reaching out when you need help.
He said the camaraderie in recent days has been huge, with an outpouring of support from fellow firefighters across the province.
“Firefighting is a family,” he said. “You know that it doesn’t matter who you are, what department you’re from, you have someone to talk to.”
— with files from The Canadian Press
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