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A police officer directs traffic at a roadblock outside the evacuated zone of the wildfire burning in Tantallon, N.S., outside of Halifax on May 29, 2023.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

An out-of-control wildfire in suburban Halifax has burned several houses to their foundations and forced the evacuation of more than 16,000 residents, triggering one of the largest fire responses in Nova Scotia’s history.

More than 24 hours after the blaze began, the vast majority of evacuees in the communities of Upper Tantallon, Pockwock and Hammonds Plains did not know if they would have homes to return to.

An unusually dry spring has combined with high wind speeds over the past few days to spread the fire – it now covers 788 hectares – and make it exceedingly difficult to control. Crews in helicopters and water bombers spent much of Monday trying to extinguish the flames, but continuing high winds made their work challenging, Halifax Mayor Mike Savage said during a press conference.

In a news release Monday evening, the Halifax Regional Municipality said about 200 homes or other structures had been damaged, judging by initial visual inspections by first responders.

Premier Tim Houston, speaking to reporters earlier in the day, said it was difficult to provide an accurate estimate of the losses because wind and smoke were limiting visibility.

“Right now, with the intensity of these fires, the resources are completely focused on tamping them back,” he said. “The safety of our firefighters is the number one priority.” No deaths or injuries have been reported.

The Premier said the evacuation orders for affected communities would be in place for at least a few days.

When Nick Horne and his family evacuated their home Sunday afternoon, he didn’t have time to grab anything aside from his phone charger. Mr. Horne has lived in Westwood Hills, the subdivision where the fire originated, since 2008. Even before the emergency alerts went out, he knew his family had to leave quickly, because there is only one safe way out of the community: Westwood Boulevard.

As his car inched down Westwood in a queue of about 200 other vehicles, Mr. Horne could see flames that were almost 50 metres tall, just about 80 metres from the road.

“When I saw the first houses that were no longer there as we drove by them, my heart left my body,” he said. His family is staying with relatives in Beaver Bank, about 40 kilometres away. They have no idea when they might be able to return home.

Mr. Horne said he had received unofficial word that as of Monday afternoon his home had not been touched by the fire. But others have begun learning that their houses have been completely destroyed. Online communities have formed where those who were away when the evacuation order went out are posting desperate pleas for assistance in rescuing pets that were left behind.

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Firefighters prepare to load gear at a command centre within the evacuated zone of the wildfire burning in Tantallon, N.S., outside of Halifax on May 29.Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press

Residents fleeing the area along Hammonds Plains Road, a major artery that connects Upper Tantallon with the communities east of it, which were evacuated as the fire spread, shared gripping footage on Sunday and Monday of the dangerous conditions they drove through. Tall orange flames bordered the road, smoke reduced visibility to almost nothing, and embers and ash rained down from the sky.

Betty Hannam and her husband, Bernard Crilley, who live about 14 kilometres from Mr. Horne, received an evacuation order late Sunday night. By that point most others had already fled the area.

Mr. Crilley suffers from severe allergies to dogs, so their options for overnight stays were limited. They had lost their power and internet connection, leaving them with little information about the scale of the fire and emergency response. They packed some clothes and a safe that contains some important items, then started driving in search of a hotel.

After driving all over the municipality and being turned away at multiple hotels that were already full of other evacuees, at 1:30 a.m. they finally arrived at the Canada Games Centre, a short drive from downtown Halifax. The sports facility had been transformed into an emergency shelter operated by the Canadian Red Cross.

About two dozen cots were set up in a large gymnasium, and the couple were among the 15 people who claimed them Sunday night.

But after a rough slumber – Ms. Hannam suffers from sciatic nerve pain, and in the rush of evacuation had forgotten her medication at home – the couple vowed to spend Monday night in their car.

The last time the Canadian Red Cross had to mobilize this way in Nova Scotia was during Hurricane Fiona last fall, said Ancel Langille, a senior manager for emergency management with the organization. But in that case, he said, most had a few days’ warning the storm was coming.

With the wildfire, “some people had to leave at a moment’s notice,” Mr. Langille added. “It was very fast and some people don’t have medications, and people don’t have clothing, so we’re doing our best to support them with helping to meet some basic needs.”

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