Help on the way for central Newfoundland fire that premier says is largest since 1961

·5 min read

The rapid growth of a long-burning forest fire in central Newfoundland has triggered a state of emergency in the area and the expansion of an outdoor fire ban to the entire province.

Premier Andrew Furey told reporters on Sunday the state of emergency was declared the night before in the areas of Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop’s Falls and the Connaigre Peninsula, "not to create panic" but to ensure residents and officials alike are ready to respond if the situation deteriorates further.

"Over the last 36 hours, things have changed," Furey said at a news conference, alongside Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture Minister Derrick Bragg and Department of Natural Resources Incident Commander Craig Coady.

"We were predicting that we could manage this. However … with the wind change, we are afraid that there will be significant smoke impact."

Furey said the current predictive path of the blaze itself does not directly impact any communities, but changing wind patterns were making the situation difficult to handle.

He said that prompted him to ask Public Safety Minister John Hogan to declare a state of emergency, and urged some nearby communities to prepare for possible evacuation.

"This is a dynamic, evolving situation as all fires are, but we can’t wait for the last minute … we have to act now," Furey said.

The fire has been burning for close to two weeks in central Newfoundland and has prompted road closures, including the Bay d'Espoir Highway, which is the only road connecting the communities of Harbour Breton, Hermitage and Conne River to the Trans-Canada Highway, the main thoroughfare across the province.

Coady said the wildfires will most likely continue to burn out of control due to the weather conditions.

"Over the past couple days, we’ve seen some extreme fire behaviour," he said at the news conference. "We expect to see that continue for today and possibly for the next few days. This is due to the high winds and low humidity."

Coady and Furey both said smoke posed the most significant risk for nearby communities, adding winds were also making it difficult for firefighters to control the blazes.

"If the (water) bombers can't see ahead of the fire and it's too smoky, it's not safe for them to operate," Coady said.

In all, the province is using water bombers — two from Quebec, in addition to the province assisting with a bird dog aircraft — and helicopters to fight the fires.

In a video posted to social media Saturday night, Furey described one blaze as the largest the province has seen since 1961. As of Sunday, the provincial government reported four active fires which covered about 10,800 hectares.

Jeff Motty, the Forestry Department's provincial duty officer, said the department hopes to change the fire status near Southern Lake Access Road, which started on July 31, before the end of the weekend.

"We are working really hard on it, we got a lot of resources," Motty said in an interview Sunday. "We probably won't extinguish it but we will take a good crack of it."

Federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair tweeted he had approved Newfoundland's request for government assistance, and Canadian Armed Forces personnel would be deployed to help provincial and municipal officials with evacuation efforts.

Furey said he has asked the Central Health region to create an evacuation plan for hospitals, long-term care homes, and personal care homes.

"We are strongly recommending that all citizens in the areas mentioned to be on high alert for future possible evacuations," the premier said.

Alexandra Catherine, a resident of Grand Falls, said the thought of leaving her home and most of her possessions behind has been terrifying.

"We packed everything up last night, clothing and some personal items that can’t be replaced," Catherine said in an interview on Facebook Messenger.

"I’m not taking any chance with two small children at home … we will be leaving and heading west."

Vicktoria A. Prowse-Hunter, another Grand Falls resident, echoed Catherine's plan.

"I have my bags packed, ready to leave when we get the order to do so," Prowse-Hunter said in an interview on Facebook Messenger.

Prowse-Hunter said she was awakened by smoke the morning after the fire started.

"It was a warm night so I had all my windows open and I woke up at 7 a.m. coughing uncontrollably," she said. "Then I kind of knew that it was serious."

The Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture tweeted Sunday morning that the Canadian Red Cross and Salvation Army will deliver emergency services for those who are stranded on the Trans-Canada Highway as a result of the Bay d'Espoir Highway closure.

Meanwhile, Bragg pleaded for residents to be "fire smart."

The department said the outdoor fire ban, which was expanded provincewide on Sunday, prohibits the setting of fires on or within 300 metres of forestland.

"Last night I saw two people throwing cigarette butts and I thought that was absolutely crazy," Bragg said. "That is reckless and we do not need it."

"You can have your BBQ … but do not, and I can't say that strong enough, if you are out in a wooded area, do not have any sort of open fire."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press