Nfld. & Labrador

'It's taking a toll on a lot of people': Bay d'Espoir Highway fire impacts travellers, communities

While some travellers are stranded in Bishop's Falls or Grand Falls-Windsor along the Trans-Canada Highway, Harbour Breton on Newfoundland's south coast will go ahead with its Come Home Year celebrations. The main concern, says the deputy mayor, are possible supply shortages and medical emergencies.

Stranded travellers commend hospitality of local residents

One man in a blue vest with the Salvation Army crest on the back holds an exhausted young child with curly hair.
A family waits in Bishop's Falls alongside Salvation Army disaster services volunteers, looking for a clear window to navigate the Bay d'Espoir highway. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The forest fire surrounding the Bay d'Espoir Highway is impacting travellers as well as communities on Newfoundland's south coast.

In an update early Sunday, the provincial Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture said the highway, the only road into the region, will remain closed until conditions improve.

"It's taking a toll on a lot of people," Roy Drake, deputy mayor of Harbour Breton, said Saturday. "We have a lot of people, hundreds of people actually, stranded in central trying to get home."

"And we have a few people down this way trying to get back out there ... It's just causing a kind of chaos."

The highway closure remains in place as a result of the still out-of-control forest fire in the region. It is one of four active forest fires in central Newfoundland.

While the Paradise Lake fire spanned 3,884 hectares yesterday, it has now grown by almost 40 per cent to 5,392 hectares. The Bay d'Espoir Highway fire has stayed the same size of 5,180 hectares.

The provincial government declared a state of emergency late Saturday that covers the areas of Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop's Falls and the Connaigre Peninsula.

In Saturday night's video statement, Forestry Minister Derrick Bragg said officials are concerned that the two fires will combine Sunday and threaten nearby Grand Falls-Windsor.

For communities on the south coast, says Drake, health-care access and supply shortages are among the main concerns.

"The trucks that didn't get into the area on Friday, well, of course, that'll trickle down through the weekend to the stores," said Drake.

"By Monday or Tuesday … we will bring in supplies by boat from Fortune if we need to."

A middle-aged man looks into the camera. He's wearing a safety vest and stands next to a vehicle that has "emergency" written on the side of it.
Mike Barry of the Salvation Army's emergency disaster services says it feels good to be able to help people who are stranded due to the Bay d'Espoir Highway closure. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

The highway closure also means travellers looking to continue south were stranded in Bishop's Falls in central Newfoundland on Saturday.

That's where the Salvation Army has set up to help those who are stranded.

"We're trying to provide some balanced meals for them and any supplies that they may need," said Mike Barry of the Salvation Army's emergency disaster services. "Anything just to ease their burden."

Barry says it's rewarding being able to help people during an emergency situation.

"We're compassionate and … we feel for them because it could be us in those situations."

While Barry says some people got stranded in Bishop's Falls on their way home after they had had surgeries elsewhere, Kelly Fowler of Conception Bay South was on her way to the south coast for a family reunion Saturday.

"[We] got out as far as Terra Nova to hear that the road closed down," said Fowler.

"So, we just decided to come on, hoping … only to be told that the road's closed down and the fire's after jumping the road, and it's really bad."

A middle-aged woman sits in the passenger seat of a car. Her right elbow is propped up on the inside of the door. She is looking out of the window which is rolled down.
Kelly Fowler was on her way from Conception Bay South when she heard of the highway closure. Fowler, who was on her way to a family reunion, says it's disappointing to have to turn around and drive back to the Avalon Peninsula. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Fowler calls it disappointing and frustrating to not be able to keep going.

"[We're] probably about an hour and a half away. And now we have to turn around and go back," she said. "I'm still hanging on here, like, for the next maybe hour, hoping maybe that something will change."

The support offered from both the Salvation Army and local residents has been excellent, says Fowler.

Drake agrees that the co-operation of emergency services and towns in the region has been great.

The show must go on

Despite the highway closure, the Come Home Year celebrations in Harbour Breton, including a concert Saturday, went ahead.

With the fire cutting off the main artery into the town, special measures were needed to get the main act, the band the Navigators, into the town.

"We have those guys being picked up in Fortune by a local guy here in town is going to go across the boat some 24 miles across and pick them up and bring them over, so that they can entertain us tonight," Drake said Saturday.

To see the band, says Drake, 300 people had already made their way to Harbour Breton. They are now stuck until further notice.

"The ferry that runs from Bay L'Argent to Rencontre East to Pool's Cove, we requested [Friday] that they might look into using that ferry as a load-and-go basis," said Drake.

"Anybody that needs to get off the peninsula or get in on the peninsula, they can take that ferry, without their car, unfortunately. But that's a thing that's happened [Saturday] morning, which is going to help out a lot of people."

Meanwhile, the road closure means that Luke Jarvis of Paradise won't make his way to Harbour Breton this weekend.

Jarvis and his wife had been on their way to see family when they were stopped in Bishop's Falls on Thursday afternoon.

"The wife's mother is 90 years old. She's not feeling so good and [my wife] just wanted to get down to see her," said Jarvis, adding that he wanted to see his brother who is visiting from Halifax.

Even though the situation is frustrating, says Jarvis, there's nothing he can do.

"The wife's been crying a few times, but you know, I'm not going to cry," said Jarvis. "But I feels bad about it. I would have liked to see them all."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Peter Cowan, Weekend AM and Matt McCann

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