Bay d'Espoir Highway to close overnight, as crews continue to battle forest fire

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Mallory Slade and her family drove past flames and smoke as a forest fire burned along the Bay d'Espoir Highway on Sunday evening.  (Submitted by Mallory Slade - image credit)
Mallory Slade and her family drove past flames and smoke as a forest fire burned along the Bay d'Espoir Highway on Sunday evening. (Submitted by Mallory Slade - image credit)

The only road in and out of the Connaigre Peninsula will close overnight Tuesday, as crews continue to battle an out-of-control forest fire has nearly doubled in size since Monday.

In an afternoon tweet, Newfoundland and Labrador's Forestry Department said the Bay d'Espoir Highway will close at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and should reopen between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m. Wednesday.

After the fire prompted the road's closure on Sunday, the provincial government reopened the road earlier Tuesday, with crews monitoring conditions and people asked to drive slowly though the area.

Bryan Oke, provincial forest fire duty officer, said before Tuesday's reopening there had been an opportunity to let some traffic through the closed Bay d'Espoir Highway around 7 p.m. NT on Monday.

"There was a short opportunity, a window to support a motorcade through the closed section, to assist with the vehicle backlog. We'll be looking for similar opportunities today; however, there is significant smoke in the area and we advise the public that that is a health and safety issue," Oke told CBC News on Tuesday.

Elvis Loveless, MHA for Fortune Bay-Cape La Hune said traffic did get moving through the area around 9:30 a.m. NT Tuesday.

The fire, one of six forest fires in the province, has grown to 1,006 hectares from an estimated 540 hectares on Monday, Oke said, but it is not burning near communities.

As of Tuesday afternoon, two helicopters, 24 firefighters and six pump units were fighting the flames near the highway.

Increasing smoke, which Oke said is dense and presents a health and safety issue for the crews, forced them to relocate their staging area Monday night.

Oke said Tuesday afternoon that overnight cooling helped dampen the fire and crews also made good progress on it. He said another large fire, at Paradise Lake and encompassing 826 hectares, is their second priority and there are some cabins are at risk, but no structures have burned at this time. Crews had three water bombers, one helicopter, a pump unit and 14 personnel fighting that fire Tuesday afternoon.

Blockades strand people on highway overnight

Leah Organ was stranded on the north side of the blockade on Route 360 with her grandmother, arriving there around 3 p.m. on Monday and hoping to get home to St. Alban's.

"Everybody was stranded. All the hotels were booked in Grand Falls, in Bishop's, even Exploits …  all of them were booked. So then everybody was basically there until morning," said Organ, who had gone to Clarenville for the weekend for her cousin's wedding and spent the night roadside in her car.

She said a grocery store brought some water and snacks for some stranded travelers while they waited. But she started to worry when her grandmother was down to one shot of insulin, which needed to be taken with food, and the nearby diner was closed.

"I wouldn't know what to do if anything were to happen to her," Organ said.

Submitted by Alisha Joe
Submitted by Alisha Joe

She said they were eventually allowed to drive through the nearly 20-kilometre road closure, a "nerve-racking" trek through a lot of smoke and blackened, burned trees.

"But there [were] no flames in there because it rained a bit here and there. So it was kind of a relief," she said, just after she arrived home around 11 a.m. NT on Tuesday.

A woman from Conne River is also feeling a sense of relief and is reunited with her four children after spending two nights sleeping in her car, with no air conditioning, also on the north side of the highway closure.

"I'm exhausted. I'm drained. It was a roller-coaster of emotions," said Alisha Joe, adding that she was excited to see her children, who were staying with her mom.

Joe said she was devastated to see all the charred plant life along the road.

"God knows how many wildlife have been injured or killed," she said.

Smoke affects air quality, light rain forecast

An Environment Canada special air quality statement, covering a large part of central Newfoundland from Buchans to Gander, is still in effect. The weather office said smoke is drifting downwind from the fires and is heavily concentrated in some areas.

"Some areas are still seeing some relatively elevated contractions of smoke," said Rodney Barney, a meteorologist with the weather office in Gander.

This summer has been hotter and drier than normal and while heat warnings for much of the island have ended, temperatures in central Newfoundland are forecast to be in the mid-20 C range Tuesday, with humidex values making it feel more like 34 degrees.

Barney said showers should start on the west coast this afternoon and spread eastward to central Newfoundland.

"For the most part those rain showers do look relatively light but as they move into central they will over some areas become slightly more intense, possibly giving rise to the odd thundershower," Barney said.

Around 10:30 a.m. NT Tuesday, maps from Environment Canada showed heavy lightning moving across the Connaigre Peninsula.

The fires began after lightning moved through central Newfoundland on Sunday.

Central Health says it will provide a virtual emergency room service until Wednesday for residents isolated on the peninsula, since there is no doctor at the Connaigre Peninsula Health Centre in Harbour Breton.

The health authority also said air ambulance services are available to patients needing medical transport. In a statement, Central Health said the air ambulance had not been used as of 8 a.m. NT Tuesday to take patients off the isolated peninsula.

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