Newfoundland residents are preparing for the possibility they may have to evacuate their homes as two large forest fires continue to rage through the central parts of the province, with thick smoke forecast to cover some areas in the coming days.
Grand Falls-Windsor mayor Barry Manuel said Wednesday that the town is monitoring the situation closely for any changes over the next 24 hours as smoke is expected to roll into the city Wednesday evening.
“We ask everybody to be ready and to make sure you’re checking in on your family and loved ones and anybody that’s especially vulnerable, and have your plan in place and your things ready to go,” Barry Manuel said.
Mr. Manuel said that Hunter Memorial Stadium in Deer Lake, located two hours west of Grand Falls-Windsor, is being operated by the Red Cross as a relief centre and would be available for people to evacuate to should they have nowhere else to go. Buses leave Grand Falls-Windsor daily at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. for people who need transportation to the site.
The two current wildfires, which were sparked on July 24 by a lightning strike, have created the largest forest fire in the province since the 1960s. According to Jeff Motty, the province’s forest fire duty officer, the largest fire currently burning about 25 kilometres away from Grand Falls-Windsor in the centre of the province has grown to 170 square kilometres, while the smaller fire, which has been burning close to the Bay d’Espoir Highway, is about 58 square kilometres in size.
While the local weather appeared to clear up on Wednesday, Mr. Manuel said that the situation is “unpredictable” and encouraged residents to stay inside, especially if they are more vulnerable to smoke inhalation.
Environment Canada’s air quality health index for Grand Falls-Windsor is forecasting a “high risk” index of nine out of a possible 10+ beginning Wednesday night and continuing through Thursday. This means people should consider reducing outdoor activities, particularly if they experience a cough or breathing irritation, or have heart or breathing difficulties.
Mr. Manuel said residents should be prepared to leave at a moment’s notice and to seek up-to-date information from the provincial government’s websites and social media feeds, who will be responsible for ordering an evacuation if necessary.
“We feel confident that we’ve got all the plans in place and the logistics considered when it comes to an evacuation – that we can do that effectively. But obviously we need the co-operation of the citizens,” Mr. Manuel said.
Mr. Manuel said the fire has caused two different emergencies in the province. The first is the direct threat of smoke and flames, and the second is the risk of communities being stranded and cut off from the supply chain due to highway closures.
Closures included the Bay d’Espoir Highway, which closed Thursday afternoon and reopened Tuesday. It is the main connection to the Trans-Canada Highway and other major services and urban centres for many of the smaller communities, including Grand Falls-Windsor.
In a public advisory, the province stated that there would be a reassessment on Thursday morning to determine whether smoke is affecting visibility on the highway and whether it will remain open.
The mayor of Harbour Breton, Lloyd Blake, said Wednesday that the highway closures created a panic as people began to run out of food last week. The town of about 1,600, located along the southern coast of the province, receives weekly food shipments on Thursdays, and had to helicopter in food and essential products for residents over the last few days.
Medevac also had to be called in a few times to airlift those in need of medical care in Grand Falls-Windsor.
Now with the highway open and supplies rolling into the region, Mr. Blake is concerned about changes in the wind which could cause smoke to close the highway again.
“Our big concern was keeping that road open so emergency services and people can travel to and fro,” Mr. Blake said. About 200 visitors were stranded in the town after travelling to the region last week for the Come Home Year civic celebrations, he added.
Hermitage-Sandyville mayor Stephen Crewe said that his town, located west of Habour Breton, also had emergency supplies brought in by helicopters on Wednesday allowing local shops to restock. Although he said people now have a moment to relax, they remain vigilant as they wait to see what happens with the wind and smoke.
With a report from Canadian Press
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