ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Wildfires shut down the highway into town, the band had to be boated in and some guests made an exit on a fishing vessel, but the Newfoundland town of Harbour Breton hosted its Come Home Year party last weekend anyway.
Jordan Tibbo, who sits on the town's recreation committee, said Wednesday it was a night for the record books.
"Despite the road being cut off, the turnout was absolutely amazing," Tibbo said in an interview, noting there were at least 600 people out for the show. Because of the pandemic, it was the town's first live concert since 2019, he added. "I think people were ready to go!"
Harbour Breton is a community of about 1,600 people on Newfoundland's south coast, at the edge of the island's Connaigre Peninsula. The town hosted Come Home Year celebrations last week, including a concert featuring traditional Newfoundland band The Navigators planned for Saturday night.
The Come Home Year event invited all those who had moved away from the town over the years to return for a visit. The events are common in the province where so many young people move away for work.
But last Thursday, as growing wildfires raged nearby, provincial officials shut down the only highway leading into Harbour Breton and the Connaigre Peninsula. The road didn't open again until Tuesday morning. It remained open Wednesday as the two fires burning west of the highway grew to cover more than 200 square kilometres.
Tibbo said the road closure meant everyone already back in Harbour Breton for Come Home Year was stuck. And everyone who hadn't yet arrived had to find some other way to get there — including the headlining band.
Enter a generous local resident with a Zodiac boat.
Arthur O'Brien, The Navigators' lead singer, guitar and fiddle player, said he and the band didn't hesitate to accept a ride on the Zodiac. They drove down the neighbouring Burin Peninsula on Saturday afternoon where the makeshift ferry awaited. After a smooth, hour-long ride, they pulled up to Harbour Breton in time for the sound check, O'Brien said an interview.
The show, he said, was great. "For a road that was closed down in a community that not everybody was able to get to, it was near full capacity," O'Brien said. "I was quite shocked."
On Sunday morning, the band piled back into the Zodiac and returned to the Burin Peninsula. The sea wasn't quite as calm that day. "We did some pretty good pounding," O'Brien said. "One of us got sick, but I'm not saying who."
Tibbo played in two bands that opened for The Navigators on Saturday night. One, called Top Shelf, is entirely local, he said. The other, Portside, has members from out of town. They managed to drive in before the road closed on Thursday, and they sped out of town the moment it reopened, Tibbo said.
Not wanting to wait on the highway opening, the band members' wives left town early Tuesday aboard a fishing boat, he added.
Like many of the cut-off communities on the Connaigre Peninsula, Harbour Breton began to run out of groceries as the closure dragged on. "The joke was that they were running out of Blue Star," O'Brien said, referring to a popular Newfoundland beer.
He said there were several residents taking people in and out of town aboard their boats.
Officials said Wednesday morning that the two fires burning west of the Bay d'Espoir Highway covered a total area of nearly 230 square kilometres. Jeff Motty, the province's forest fire duty officer, said a day of rain Tuesday helped the situation, and water bombers were back in the air on Wednesday trying to douse the flames.
The Department of Forestry announced the highway would remain open on Wednesday, and conditions would be reassessed Thursday morning. Parts of central and southern Newfoundland remained in a state of emergency that was first declared on the weekend due largely to smoke and air quality concerns.
Late Wednesday, forestry officials advised residents of Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop's Falls and Botwood that smoke would likely increase early Thursday morning and into Friday, and they urged people to stay indoors.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 10, 2022.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press