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Curtain of fire: How Nova Scotia tackled two blazes at once

One massive wildfire is enough to keep any fire department busy. But in June, the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service (HRFES) found itself fighting two huge wildfires at once – a nightmare situation that resulted in the largest fire evacuation in Nova Scotia’s history.

October 31, 2008
By James Careless

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Several early arriving units gather on Highway 107. Initially, firefighters thought they could try to stop the blaze here but the fire had advanced and responders were redeployed to other areas.
Photos courtesy halifax regional fire & Emergency Service

One massive wildfire is enough to keep any fire department busy. But in June, the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service (HRFES) found itself fighting two huge wildfires at once – a nightmare situation that resulted in the largest fire evacuation in Nova Scotia’s history.

The first wildfire started June 13 in the heavily wooded communities of Lake Echo and Porters Lake about 28 kilometres east of downtown Halifax; likely in a campsite frequented by ATV riders, according to RCMP. Before it was over, the Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire destroyed two homes and forced the evacuation of 5,000 residents. The second fire in the community of Tantallon, about 25 kilometres west of downtown Halifax, started later that day; resulting in a dozen homes being evacuated but with no buildings lost.

The Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire alone measured 15 kilometres long and three kilometres wide. It burned out of control for two days due to high winds gusting up to 60 km/h, plus debris on the forest floor left by Hurricane Juan in 2003. Although smaller (150 acres and 1.5 kilometres in length), the Tantallon fire raged under the same conditions.

To fight the wildfires, the HRFES deployed hundreds of firefighters from its member departments backed by a full range of apparatus, with fixed-wing/helicopter water bomber support from the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the province of New Brunswick. Water tankers were also loaned to the regional municipality by Newfoundland and Quebec.

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“It was a little stressful knowing where all of our resources were at any one time,” says Roy Hollett, the HRFES’ deputy chief and the site commander for the Lake Echo fire. “Yet thanks to our member departments, we weren’t actually all that stretched. As a result, although the conditions were tough – with our crews having to retreat a number of times due to fast-moving flames – we had what we needed to fight the fires.”

A snapshot of the HRFES
In 1754, just five years after the British military established Halifax, the Union Fire Club was formed. It was actually an association of volunteer-run fire brigades across the settlement, which aided the military in fighting fires. Operating under names such as the Hand in Hand, Sun Fire and Heart in Hand, these clubs relied on buckets, ladders and axes. Over the years the Halifax Fire Department has faced many challenges, the most horrific of which was the 1917 Halifax explosion. Caused by the munitions ship Mont Blanc, which exploded with a force of 2.9 kilotons, the disaster killed between 1,600 and 2,000 people and wounded 9,000 more. Nine firefighters died, including Halifax Chief Edward P. Condon.

In 1996, Halifax, Dartmouth, Bedford, and the Municipality of the County of Halifax amalgamated to form a single administrative entity, the Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM). At the same time, 38 fire departments were brought together to create the Halifax Regional Fire & Emergency Service. Then as now, most of the smaller departments were volunteer staffed.
Fortunately for the HRFES, the Lake Echo/Porters Lake and Tantallon fires occurred over a weekend, ensuring that most volunteers were available to aid their career colleagues. (The volunteers were the primary firefighting force on Friday night, June 13, and on Saturday and Sunday, June 14 and 15.)

What happened
The battle against the Lake Echo fire started during the morning of Friday, June 13. “We received several calls saying that there was an extremely fast-moving fire in the Lake Echo region,” says Hollett. “It didn’t take long to see the magnitude of the fire as you drove east on Highway 107 out of the city. When you see that much smoke, you know it’s a big one.”
By the time Hollett arrived on scene on Highway 107’s exit 19 overpass, HRFES officers were working with the RCMP to divert traffic. “The fire had already crossed Highway 7 and was well on its way to where we were,” he said. “As a result, it didn’t take long for the various agencies to agree to upgrade the fire to an EMO-level [Halifax Emergency Measures Office]. Under that multi-agency plan, I assumed site command; we set up shop right where we were.”

Working with the RCMP, DNR and the Red Cross, the HRFES took on the Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire in earnest. Within a few hours, bucket-carrying DNR helicopters were on the site, dumping water in a feverish attempt to control the fast-moving blaze. But such was the combination of wind speeds, low humidity and forest debris that the efforts weren’t enough to put the fire in check.

“To be safe, I signed the evacuation orders that emptied these neighbourhoods,” says Hollett. “In 20/20 hindsight, this proved to be a really good idea because the fires were burning so hot and fast that we couldn’t predict how they might end up.” Evacuation centres were set up in Cole Harbour and at the Seaforth community hall, where residents were regularly briefed on the progress in fighting the fire.

“We were pushed back down Highway 107 several kilometres at a time, the fire was so fast and intense,” recalls Capt. Cory Dominix of the HRFES Station 21. “Even where we couldn’t see the flames, we knew that the fire was close by because of all the animals fleeing the woods to the relative safety of the road where we were. Wild rabbits, foxes and raccoons were gathered all around us, just trying to get away from the heat and smoke. It was surreal.”

As hard as 158 firefighters, helicopters and water bombers fought against the Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire, the flames kept the upper hand. It wasn’t just the wind and low humidity that was causing problems; much of the involved areas was inaccessible by road. It was for this reason that more and more resources kept being brought in, including the water bombers.

Enter Tantallon
Late that same afternoon, while Hollett was heading up the fight against the first fire, he was approached at the scene by HRFES Chief Stephen Thurber. “He told me that a second wildfire was burning out of control in the west end of our jurisdiction, in Tantallon,” Hollett recalls. “At first, I thought he was pulling my leg.”

Unfortunately, Thurber wasn’t kidding, and so a second team of firefighters and apparatus was dispatched to that scene. “The Tantallon fire started in brush near three houses on Fir Lane,” says Platoon Chief Paul Hopkins, who ran the Tantallon operation. “We had sustained winds of 30-40 km/h with gusts up to 70-90 km/h, so the flames just took off from there.”
“Sometimes the wind actually helped,” notes District Chief Gord West. “In one subdivision, it moved so fast that it just blew over the buildings, going from one side to another. It was pretty amazing to see.”

“We were able to divide our resources such that both scenes were fully manned by the necessary personnel, including the Red Cross,” he says. “Thanks to a DNR fixed-wing aircraft, we were able to stay on top of what was happening in both locations as it happened, and share our resources accordingly.” The Tantallon fire scene eventually had 111 firefighters at work, 21 apparatus and two DNR helicopters.

The HRFES lost ground against both fires throughout Saturday, June 14. Postings at www.halifax.ca, the city’s website, tell the story. June 14 at 11:10 a.m.: “The fire is still not in control.” Forty-four minutes later: “The evacuation zone has been EXTENDED to now include Wonderland Trailer Park and Mountain View Trailer Park.” At 4:24 p.m.: “Due to the spreading fire, there is a one-hour notice for a possible mandatory evacuation in effect for residents living in the following areas: Carter Romans Sub Division, Beach Breeze Estates, and Haylings Acres, all off the Lawrencetown Road.”

It wasn’t until the winds died Saturday evening that firefighters “taking stands” in neighbourhoods such as Candy Mountain and Glen Haven Estates were able to turn the flames back upon themselves. “We just drove our apparatus into Candy Mountain, deployed and took a stand against the fire, in order to protect the homes there,” says Capt. Dominix. “We did the same in Glen Haven Estates, which was tough to execute because you had to climb very steep rocky terrain to get to the fire zone,” says Platoon Chief Hopkins.

The next day, the humidity went up while the winds started to die down; finally, the HRFES fire crews were getting a break. But the remoteness of the fire, combined with the lack of readily available water and road access in many locations, made fighting the flames difficult.

“Fortunately, the water bombers picked up the slack, but we had to be very careful to co-ordinate their bombing runs so that we didn’t hit any of our crews,” says Hollett.
Problems notwithstanding, the HRFES fought the Lake Echo/Porters Lake and Tantallon fires to a standstill that Sunday. At 2:21 p.m., the Halifax city website reported that, “At this point, there is more smoke than there is actual fire; there are still larger areas burning, but they are fairly deep back in the brush. No residential areas are immediately affected at this time.” Soon after, Tantallon residents were allowed to go home, followed later that evening by some Lake Echo/Porters Lake evacuees.

By Monday, June 16, the worst was over. “As of 4 p.m. today the Highway 107 between exit 18-19 will re-open,” said www.halifax.ca. “This marks the end of EMO operations. All highways and streets are now open. HRM Fire remains to have a presence in the area for the wrap-up of operations.”

Results and lessons learned
In general, the HRFES and its partners worked well together during these wildfires, using the command system and procedures outlined in the city’s EMO plan. The only real concerns expressed by Deputy Chief Hollett have to do with keeping evacuees adequately briefed.

“We had about 5,000 people evacuated from the Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire but only 800 to 1,000 showed up a time for our briefings,” he says. “We’re trying to come up with a plan to keep everyone informed during such an event. Local radio station CKDU 97.5 FM, which runs talk programming Mondays to Fridays, reverted to talk on Friday night and Saturday to pass on information this time around. We’d like to come up with something like that on a formal basis, to ensure that everyone knows what is going on.”

Considering the scale of these wildfires – particularly the 45 square kilometres devoured by the Lake Echo/Porters Lake fire – it is remarkable that no lives were lost, and only two buildings destroyed. Such a result is a testament to the quality of the HRFES’ firefighters and those who aided them that hot, dry weekend in June.


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