Out-of-control fires have Newfoundland towns on edge as crisis moves into 3rd week
State of emergency still in effect for much of central Newfoundland
Two massive forest fires in central Newfoundland near the Bay d'Espoir Highway and Paradise Lake continue to burn out of control Monday, after growing significantly over the weekend, and communities in the region continue to stay alert for possible evacuation.
A state of emergency was declared in the Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop's Falls and Connaigre Peninsula areas on Saturday night, and extended to the Botwood area on Sunday. Premier Andrew Furey asked residents there to prepare for a possible evacuation.
The Bay d'Espoir Highway, which connects the Connaigre Peninsula on Newfoundland's south coast to the rest of the island, is still closed and will remain that way until further notice.
"We're doing our very best to try and get that Bay d'Espoir Highway open again, but the reality is the fire's on both sides of the road, the wind's not helping down there, and the size of the fire is increased," said provincial forest fire duty officer Jeff Motty.
According to remote sensing technology, Motty said the Paradise Lake fire is estimated to be 6,614 hectares, while the Bay d'Espoir fire is about 5,273 hectares.
While officials had thought the fires would merge into one over the weekend, Motty said that didn't happen, and based on the weather forecast, they're not predicting it will happen Monday either.
As of Monday afternoon, Motty said, there is still open flame and heavy smoke coming from the fires, which has made firefighting challenging.
"Even with water bombers it was too much smoke to safely through work those fires there yesterday," said Motty.
Motty said there is some positive news as temperatures at the site are expected to be lower Monday, at about 23 C, and winds are expected to be weaker and change direction, blowing from the northwest, on Monday afternoon.
Motty said the more favourable weather conditions are expected to blow smoke away from Grand Falls-Windsor and Gander and more toward eastern Newfoundland.
"So those communities that have been getting smoked in recently hopefully will get a little reprieve today," he said.
'Hopefully make some good headway'
Motty said there are eight water bombers, two bird dog aircraft and air attack officers — which will observe the fire — ready to fight the flames.
"We got a lot of resources there that we can really knock this down. We want to knock it down, get it down to the ground so we can put our firefighters in there," he said.
"So as soon as we can get on that fire, we're going to hopefully make some good headway," said Motty.
Meanwhile, Motty said the Paradise Lake fire is close to power transmission lines and jumped one of the lines.
In a statement Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said the fire has crossed two transmission lines from Bay d'Espoir and it did cause the lines to trip. They said both lines were re-energized and the trip didn't cause an outage for customers.
N.L. Hydro said the lines have been reliably in service since Saturday, but fire increases the risk of a trip due to smoke and soot contamination.
Meanwhile, Hydro said the fire has not reached the Labrador-Island Link power transmission corridor, which lies between the fire and communities.
The utility said it doesn't anticipate any power outages for customers on the island.
He said they're using the area around another power transmission line, south of Grand Falls-Windsor, to create a firebreak. He said bulldozers are working along the 30-metre-wide transmission line to dig and create a gap in vegetation to stop the fire from spreading.
"They'll create a 90-metre firebreak. So we're making great, great progress on that," he said.
Motty said Parks Canada is also pitching in with some prescribed burning to make firebreaks more effective.
"We've got a lot of different strategies between ground crews, air crews, prescribed burn and firebreaks that we're using to hopefully protect communities from these fires."
Central Health pauses patient moves
Meanwhile, Central Health, the region's health authority, has stopped moving some patients and long-term care home residents to other parts of the island.
Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister Tom Osborne said they have already moved about 70 long-term care residents from the affected areas to the Western Health region. They've also moved about 50 acute-care patients to Eastern Health, and 10 to Western Health.
"The fire was getting uncomfortably close to Grand Falls-Windsor, Botwood region, but the smoke and the intensity of the smoke was another concern," he said.
Osborne said moving patients was a pre-emptive move, one they did while they could still do it safely.
"If things had gotten further out of hand with the fire we may have been really in a crunch to try to safely move patients and residents," he said.
In an email statement, Eastern Health said it has rescheduled some "non-urgent adult surgeries" set for Monday and Tuesday, as Central Health relocates some of its patients.
The email said the health authority has rescheduled 54 surgeries from Monday, across hospitals in Clarenville, Carbonear, and St. John's. Another 36 originally scheduled for Tuesday at the Health Sciences Centre, the Janeway, and St. Clare's hospital have been rescheduled.
Eastern Health said as of Monday, its facilities in the St. John's area have received about 40 patients from the Central Health region.
Air quality warnings
Environment Canada meteorologist Rodney Barney said the weather will play a major factor in how the fires behave over the next few days.
Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement spanning from Gander to the Bonavista Peninsula as smoke from the wildfires reduces air quality.
"Fortunately, the winds are much weaker today, so that's generally favourable for the firefighters," said Barney.
He said winds will gusting from 20 to 40 km/h, but with dry conditions they could still cause erratic fire behaviour.
Meanwhile, Barney is eyeing rain that could shower the province on Tuesday. However, the heaviest rainfall — between 15 to 25 millimetres — is expected over the southern half of the island and toward the Avalon Peninsula, while only five to 10 millimetres of rain is forecast for areas where the fires are burning.
"Not huge amounts for central, but certainly it'll help," said Barney.
While Furey has urged people near the fire to be on standby, no evacuation order had been given as of Monday morning.
A bus will evacuate people from Grand Falls-Windsor who are concerned about possible poor air quality from the forest fires in central Newfoundland at 11 a.m. NT. According to a statement on the town's website, the bus will take passengers to an evacuation shelter run by the provincial government in Deer Lake. There are pickup locations at the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium and at Windsor Stadium.
In Bishop's Falls, residents who want to leave the area due to possible smokey conditions and poor air quality can meet at the Salvation Army Church or call the town's office if they require transportation to the church. The town is asking residents to pack essential items like cash, prescription medication, eye glasses, changes of clothing and personal items.
People wishing to leave the area should arrive at muster stations by 10 a.m. and anyone requiring transportation should contact the fire hall, according to the statement.
With files from Newfoundland Morning, CrossTalk and Peter Cowan