Bay d'Espoir Highway closed for 2nd day as forest fire continues to burn out of control

·7 min read
Mallory Slade and her family drove past flames and smoke as a forest fire burns along the Bay D'Espoir highway Sunday evening.  (Mallory Slade/CBC - image credit)
Mallory Slade and her family drove past flames and smoke as a forest fire burns along the Bay D'Espoir highway Sunday evening. (Mallory Slade/CBC - image credit)

The only road in and out of Newfoundland's Connaigre Peninsula will stay closed until at least Monday evening, and firefighting crews are considering relocation as a forest fire continues to burn out of control near the Bay d'Espoir Highway.

Provincial forest fire duty officer Bryan Oke said wind and smoke conditions worsened Monday afternoon, and firefighters are considering relocating their staging area and trying to determine whether they need to start extracting crews.

Thousands of people have been cut off from the rest of the island since Sunday afternoon, when police closed the Bay d'Espoir Highway.

Three water bombers, a helicopter, pump unit and 12 firefighters are battling the flames, spanning 540 hectares or more than 1,300 football fields, near the Northwest Gander River bridge, about 40 kilometres south of the Trans-Canada Highway.

"The highway closure remains a priority for the department, and that would be the Paradise Lake fire and the Bay d'Espoir fire here in relative close proximity," said Oke.

In an tweet just after 6 p.m., the province's forestry department said crews are still battling fires on the Bay D'Espoir Highway and the road will remain closed to traffic until further notice. The department is asking people to avoid the area.

Speaking with CBC News just after 8 p.m., a spokesperson for the department said highway closure will also be a priority Tuesday, when three water bombers and crew are expected to return to the scene. The area damaged by fire is still under assessment.

Oke said five fires started throughout central Newfoundland after a weather system with lightning moved through the region. Much of the central area has been experiencing dry, hot weather and has been under a heat warning from Environment Canada since Friday, with temperatures in the 30 C range.

"Dry weather has a significant impact on the potential for fire," said Oke.

One of the fires reached the road but burned out upon reaching the pavement, he said, while a second fire jumped the road.

In a statement to CBC News, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said its emergency services division is monitoring the situation closely. The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure said it will be monitoring the road and will be doing a drive through before reopening in order to identify and address any issues that may arise.

Further, the Provincial Emergency Operations Centre has been activated and the department is assisting with a coordinated emergency response.

Nerve-racking drive through fire

Mallory Slade, her fiancé and three kids had an experience they won't soon forget Sunday evening after they drove through the fire-encircled highway on the way home to Grand Falls-Windsor after taking a day trip to the St. Alban's and Belleoram area.

Slade said they were third in a lineup of cars almost 1½ kilometres long when the road was closed.

"You could see, like, the glow in the distance and you could see the smoke towering up. We could actually see the water bombers coming in up over the trees and letting the water fall," Slade said.

Slade said they tried to keep up with updates from the provincial government about the fire but it was difficult because there was little to no cellphone reception along the highway.

Slade said an official from the Transportation Department opened the road and allowed them drive through the fire, at their own risk, starting a little after 9:30 p.m. NT.

"Nobody backed down, everybody went through," Slade said. She felt hesitant at first because the drive caused her fiancé to relive escaping fires in 2016 that destroyed parts of Fort McMurray. Her nine-year-old daughter was terrified, she said.

"There was a time we actually came to a complete stop and the fire was on both sides of us," she said. "It was nerve-racking. My daughter was really scared, she cried the whole time."

It took about half an hour to slowly drive though the area, she said.

Mallory Slade/CBC
Mallory Slade/CBC

Slade said she felt panicked but also had a rush of adrenalin during the drive, and they were happy to get home to their family dog around 11 p.m. NT Sunday and finally safely tuck their kids into bed.

As of noon Monday Oke said much of the fire's fuel, like straggly pine and bog grass, along the highway had been burned, which is positive. However, he says there is a significant amount of smoke throughout the central region.

Oke says a section of Route 360 is closed at the 42- and 60-kilometre marks and he is asking people not to drive through any barricades and onto closed parts of the highway.

Road closure cuts off patients, tourists

Harbour Breton Mayor Lloyd Blake says the local hospital is on diversion; there is no doctor on the peninsula, forcing people to travel to Grand Falls-Windsor, more than 220 kilometres away, for medical care.

Blake said he was pleased Central Health quickly flew an advanced-care paramedic into the area after the highway, also known as Route 360, was closed.

"If an emergency arises people would be able to go to the Connaigre health-care centre from all areas in the Coast of Bays, and what they would do, they would take the patient on the ambulance and then there would be an air intercept by the air ambulance crew. Then they would fly them to Grand Falls," said Blake.

In a statement, Central Heath said it's providing a virtual emergency room at the hospital Monday and the Department of Health and Community Services said emergency air services are available should there be a medical emergency.

"Due to the evolving situation in the Coast of Bays area, Central Health would ask that only those requiring emergency services present at this time. Air ambulance services will be available to those in need of medical transport," reads the statement.

Blake said he is unaware of any medical flights taking place so far. He said residents are worried about being isolated from the rest of Newfoundland because some have regularly scheduled medical appointments.

"There could be in excess of 10,000 people here yesterday with no doctor," Blake said.

With Come Home Year celebrations happening, he said, there are also many tourists in the area who now cannot leave the peninsula.

Mi'sel Joe, chief of the nearby Miawpukek First Nation, says his granddaughter is one of those visitors to the province and is scheduled to take the Marine Atlantic ferry to Nova Scotia on Monday as they head home to New Brunswick.

"They don't know if they're going to get across to the other side to catch their scheduled ferry crossing or not," he said.

Joe says he hasn't had any discussions with the provincial government about the fire yet, but said he will look to speak with them Monday.

When the wind is right, he said, you can see a haze from the fire and smell smoke.

"It smells like burned-up moss," said Joe. The burning landscape has a lot of trees and berry grounds, he said.

"It's just like tinder, that stuff. Once the fire gets in that stuff it'll burn for days."

Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement for Gander early Monday morning, and later expanded it to Grand Falls-Windsor, Buchans and areas along the Bay d'Espoir Highway.

"Smoke is drifting downwind from forest fires 70 to 100 km southwest of Gander and is heavily concentrated near the surface," said the statement.

Meteorologists expect the smoke to disperse throughout the day Monday but it could cause coughing, throat irritation, headaches and shortness of breath, especially in people with cardiovascular or lung diseases, including asthma.

Temperatures could abate Monday evening or Tuesday as the heat warning ends and showers are forecast for the Grand Falls-Windsor area early Tuesday morning.

"We need rain," Joe said.

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