Cleanup bills mounting for municipalities hit hard by post-tropical storm Fiona

Stumps are all that remain of sections of the park where hemlock trees once towered over walking trails.   (Jean Laroche/CBC - image credit)
Stumps are all that remain of sections of the park where hemlock trees once towered over walking trails. (Jean Laroche/CBC - image credit)

Staff at Victoria Park in Truro, N.S., would normally be laid off at this time of year. But they're busy cleaning up the damage caused by post-tropical storm Fiona more than three months ago.

The powerful winds toppled towering hemlocks, causing extensive damage to the park's 1,200 hectares of woods and walking trails near the centre of town. Many sections remain off limits as a private contractor cuts down and hauls off the downed and damaged trees.

Mayor Bill Mills said progress was sometimes slow because of the steep terrain, but three months of steady work is bearing fruit.

"I would say that we're a little bit over half, maybe two-thirds [done]," said Mills. "That might be a stretch, but we've made some great progress."

Paul Palmeter/CBC
Paul Palmeter/CBC

What can be salvaged is being sent to mills to be turned into building material, according to the mayor.

"We've had about 20 tandem truckloads of hemlocks taken out of the park and that wood is for sale," said Mills, adding that some of the remaining wood will be used to build rails, park benches or picnic tables.

While the town was recovering some of its remediation costs, he said at last count, the estimated price tag was already $230,000 and counting.

"I think it would be fair to say it's going to be probably well over half a million dollars," said Mills. "That's speculation right now. But based on the damage that's up there, it might even go higher."

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

Around 60 kilometres northeast, the Municipality of Pictou County has already spent about $600,000 clearing the damage caused by Fiona. Warden Robert Parker estimated the bill would likely grow to $750,000 or more.

"[A] big part of our recreation in rural Pictou County is our trail system and it was terribly badly damaged," said Parker. "And so there's going to be requests coming from those trails associations, you know, for hundreds of thousands of dollars probably, too."

"So it doesn't end, you know, even at [$750,000] or a million, it doesn't end there."

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

Alasdair Veitch, a member of the Cape to Cape Trail Committee, said his group would definitely be looking for help to restore sections of hiking trails his group looks after.

He estimated 40 of the 50 kilometres of local hiking paths sustained damage during Fiona. Much of that damage has been cleared by hand, said Veitch, but his group will need money to hire professionals to handle the hardest hit areas.

"To get back to where we were [on] Sept. 23, 2022, I don't think we'll get there this year, 2023," said Veitch. "It'll probably be 2024 before we get back to even some semblance of where we were before."

Locals who like to snowmobile or ride all-terrain vehicles have also been busy clearing the trails they use. Floyd Cock, a member of the Pictou County Trails Association, said his group has already spent close to $200,000 to clear roughly 80 per cent of the trails in the region.

He said the hurricane-strength winds created "absolute mayhem" in the forests of Pictou County.

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

"It was heartbreaking, to be honest with you. It was depressing for the first two or three weeks for me to go around because I was asked to do an assessment of the trails," said Cock. "We have about 260 kilometres of trails that we maintain and we couldn't even access them."

The group used drones to survey the damage.

"When you looked down from the air, you couldn't tell a trail was there," he said. "It was simply a pancake of trees laying across each other, every which way.

"We brought in machinery in a lot of cases at great expense, and we aren't sure yet how we're going to pay for it."

Work is underway to reopen Salt Springs Provincial Park, a popular day-use area in Pictou County.

The Department of Natural Resources and Renewables has hired a contractor to cut down and haul away trees uprooted or damaged during the storm.

Robert Guertin/CBC
Robert Guertin/CBC

David Steeves, forest resources technician at the department, called the damage "all encompassing."

"We lost hundreds and hundreds [of trees] and some very old, mature wood — kind of what the park was known for," said Steeves. "Beautiful red spruce and pine and hemlock, the trees that are there when a forest has reached its full potential.

"We lost the vast majority of that in this park, unfortunately."

The municipality and others in the region are also worried about damage to private woodlots in the municipality.

"Acres and acres" of woodland has been flattened, said Parker.

"It will be generations ... before those will come back,"  he said. "There's a tremendous amount of devastation that will never get cleaned up."

Submitted by Robert Parker
Submitted by Robert Parker

Parker is concerned all the dead wood might be fuel for a forest fire in the coming years.

Steeves said was something the province would be keeping an eye on.

"We're going to have to rethink some of our strategies in regards to how we're going to access certain areas," he said.

"There is extra fuel on the ground from the storm so it's something to have to definitely consider."

Truro and Pictou County are both eager to receive the aid promised by the federal government in Fiona's aftermath.

"We're going to be applying for as much as we can possibly get," said Parker.

Jean Laroche/CBC
Jean Laroche/CBC

Mills is hoping the money flows faster than it did in 2003 when another fall hurricane cut a swath of destruction across the province.

"I know that for expenses incurred from Hurricane Juan, five, six years is the timeline for when we get that money back to support our budgets and support expenses," said Mills.

"Our budget is close to $26 million a year now, and so you take a half-a-million-dollars expense like that — that might require a couple of streets not being rebuilt in the upcoming construction season."

The same goes for projects in Pictou County.

"Those costs will keep on coming, and so it probably will mean that some other projects will have to be put off for a year or two," said Parker.