Despite efforts to open the Bay d'Espoir Highway for the weekend, provincial forest fire duty officer Jeff Motty says a worsening forest fire and increasingly hot weather has made the road unsafe for driving.
Motty said the intensity of the fire and the low visibility from smoke had made the road impassable.
"It's impossible to travel that highway. You could have head-on collisions; you could have people driving off the side of the road. It's very important that people heed our warnings."
On Friday morning, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture tweeted that the forest fire had crossed the northern section of Route 360. Motty said the fact that the fire crossed a roadway is worrisome because it signals the fire has become more intense.
Motty said he doesn't know when the highway will reopen, but firefighting crews will focus on reopening the road on Friday.
"It's unfortunate and we really feel for the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador that depend on Route 360 for getting to important appointments, getting supplies, you know — just enjoying their general quality of life," he said.
Four helicopters and three water bombers were set to start as early as 9 a.m. Friday, he said.
A bird dog aircraft and crew from Quebec has already arrived, and two more water bombers are scheduled to arrive at around 4:00 p.m., after a delay Thursday because of thunder and lightning.
Shortly before noon on Friday, Premier Andrew Furey tweeted he's been in contact with the federal government about more assistance for fighting the fire.
Warnings for cabin owners
As of Friday morning, the fire near the Bay d'Espoir highway was one of three out-of-control fires in central Newfoundland.
Motty said the fire near the Bay d'Espoir highway had grown to 1,488 hectares, while the fire near Paradise lake had grown to over 830 hectares and the fire near Southern Lake had likely grown past 70 hectares.
A fire near Carbonear has been put out, Motty said.
In a news release on Thursday, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture warned people camping or with cabins near the Bay d'Espoir highway and Paradise Lake fires to immediately evacuate.
No warnings have gone out to cabin owners near Southern Lake fires, but Motty recommended they leave the area too.
He said as of Thursday, crews hadn't yet seen any cabins lost to fire and said property owners have been cooperative with evacuation.
Thousands of people have been cut off from essential services and dozens of people have been stranded due the closure of the highway.
Stephanie Hill, who lives in Hermitage, travelled to Gander when the road opened Wednesday morning, only to get stuck when the road closed again around noon.
Hill and her boyfriend ended up sleeping in their truck in the parking lot of the Exploits River Motel and Restaurant, located near the beginning of the Bay d'Espoir highway. She said the motel had no vacancies, but staff did their best to help those who were stranded.
She said manager Rick Larocque let people use the washroom and offered free coffee and tea.
"It was so nice to see. So nice to see. Very impressive," she said. "Making the most of a bad situation, it was not too bad, really."
In an interview with The St. John's Morning Show, Larocque said motel staff and Salvation Army Emergency Services have been doing their best to help people stranded. He said as of Friday morning, 50 to 70 vehicles were in the parking lot — all stranded for a second night.
Though the motel continues to be full, Larocque said they aren't turning anyone away.
"By no means are we turning anybody down. I get a call at any time at night when we're closed and I'll go down and open up the restaurant, let anybody go to the washroom," he said.
The road reopened for a few hours Thursday morning and Hill was able to drive home, but she said the continued closure is nerve-racking. Hill, who works as a nurse, said the hospital in Harbour Breton has limited resources.
"What if there is an emergency, what if there is, you know, a cardiac arrest? Anything that someone really needs to get to [Grand Falls-Windsor]," she said.
"You're kind of on your own."
Hot temperatures, lightning hindering efforts
Motty said fires with natural causes — like lightning — can be more difficult to extinguish because they generally have more time to grow before firefighting efforts begin.
"These fires that we have now are being fueled by, I guess, the drought-like conditions that we've had in recent weeks and high temperatures noon hour and throughout the day," he said.
Temperatures in the area of the Bay d'Espoir highway fire and the Paradise Lake fire were set to reach 29 C on Friday. Motty said the high temperatures will likely be followed by another lightning storm.
"Mother nature certainly has not been our friend in terms of forest fire management," he said.