Crews make headway as Saint Andrews-area forest fires force evacuation of 300 homes

Seven firefighting airplanes have been flying continuously over the area since 9 a.m. Monday, said Saint Andrews fire Chief Kevin Theriault. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Seven firefighting airplanes have been flying continuously over the area since 9 a.m. Monday, said Saint Andrews fire Chief Kevin Theriault. (Roger Cosman/CBC - image credit)
Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Crews are "getting a good handle" on a Saint Andrews-area forest fire that has spread over 600 acres, or about 250 hectares, destroyed one home, and forced the evacuation of about 300 others since it started Sunday, according to the fire chief.

"Under-control time might be … later today or tomorrow," Chief Kevin Theriault told reporters during a. news conference Monday afternoon.

"But this will be a long, drawn-out firefight for everybody, for hotspots."

An evacuation order remains in place for Bocabec, Chamcook and surrounding areas in southwestern New Brunswick, and part of Highway 127 between Bocabec and Saint Andrews remains blocked off.

Bocabec is about 17 kilometres northeast of Saint Andrews, and Chamcook is about six kilometres north. They're both small rural communities on the highway leading into the seaside town.

WATCH | 'It's not safe to be in the woods when the conditions are this dry': officials give update on forest fire near Saint Andrews:

Saint Andrews Mayor Brad Henderson initially told CBC about 400 homes had been evacuated, but he met with the chief later in the day and revised the estimate to 300.

According to the province, 160 people from 67 households had registered with the Red Cross as being evacuees, as of mid-afternoon. "It is expected that some people have evacuated without registering," the government noted in a statement. Only a fraction of the displaced residents have registered at the emergency centres, according to Henderson.

Residents won't be able to return to their homes Monday, "for sure," Theriault said. Tuesday night might be possible, however, if crews can knock down enough of the fire and manage to keep it away from housing.

Firefighters from 13 departments from as far away as Oromocto, and seven provincial firefighting airplanes are battling the blaze, which started with an ATV fire in the woods off South Glenelg Road in Chamcook, just outside Saint Andrews, around 1:30 p.m. Sunday. The fire got out of control because of the combination of high winds, dry conditions and hot temperatures, said Theriault.

Among the positive signs, he said, is that the fire — known as the Stein Lake fire — is not "crowning," or getting into the trees. It's remaining as a ground-cover fire. "So it's more of a smouldering fire now than actual live-flame and running."

In addition, the smoke has died down quite a bit, so crews can better see each individual hotspot.

WATCH | 'Watching part of the land that they love on fire': hundreds of homes in southwestern New Brunswick evacuated as forest fire burns:

Officials will reassess the situation Tuesday morning, and work hand-in-hand with the Department of Natural Resources to make that final decision, Theriault said.

The house that went up in flames was off Bocabec Ridge Road, he said. "The fire crowned over the mountain behind it and came down, and it was moving too fast for anybody to stay there and protect it any further.

"So unfortunately we did lose the one house, but, like, the animals and the people are safe. So that's the main concern."

Stay out of the forests

Meanwhile, Premier Blaine Higgs urged all New Brunswickers to stay out of the forests, noting a total of 15 fires started Sunday, which he described as "unprecedented."

"By limiting the number of people out in the forest, we can also limit the opportunity for accidental fires," he said. "Any activities such as leaving a BBQ unattended, disposing of used charcoal or setting off fireworks could be disastrous in the current conditions."

The entire province is under a burn-ban.

Submitted by Scott Legge
Submitted by Scott Legge

The fire "ran clear" about eight kilometres to the intersection of Highway 1 and Highway 127, then jumped hilltop to hilltop, with the wind pushing it along, said Theriault.

It has jumped the highway and also some waterways and is now burning in several different areas, kilometres apart. From Kerrs Ridge Road, near the exit to Bocabec, smoke could be seen from five distinct areas.

Theriault estimates it's three kilometres wide, at its widest spot.

New crews could be seen heading out from the fire station every 30 to 45 minutes, hiking into the woods with backpacks.

Most of the firefighters are volunteers and many of them left work to fight the fire, according to Theriault.

Some planes that had gone to Nova Scotia Sunday to assist with a wildfire that continues to burn out of control northwest of Halifax returned to New Brunswick by Monday morning, Higgs told reporters.

"I've been told that certainly on the resource side we have adequate resources now on the ground for the current situation," he said. "But you know that's a moving target, isn't it?"

Brad Henderson/CBC
Brad Henderson/CBC

Saint Andrews Mayor Brad Henderson and Saint Croix MLA Kathy Bockus thanked the neighbouring communities and businesses for their overwhelming support.

Outside the command centre that's been set up at the Saint Andrews fire station, people have been arriving with food and asking what they can do to help.

Out of control, could get worse

According to the provincial Wildland Fire Reporting System, the fire is out of control, and has spread to 617 acres, or 250 hectares, since it started.

The evacuation area includes 10 kilometres along both sides of Highway 127 — from the Highway 1 exit until Glebe Road, Henderson said.

Andrea Anderson-Mason
Andrea Anderson-Mason

The fire is unpredictable, and anyone who's still in the area should leave, he said.

"There is absolutely no reason to be in your home," he said. "This is a changing situation where it could certainly get worse."

Many people in the area have been trying to get to the blocked-off area to check on property, but they are being turned away.

Emergency assistance offered

The W.C. O'Neill Arena opened as an emergency shelter and is offering food and accommodation.

No one has had to sleep on a cot because hotels, Airbnbs and private homes are opening their doors to help them out, the mayor said.

"When you drive through Saint Andrews and you see the Algonquin Hotel have a lineup of cars, and you see everyone, just their cars full of all their belongings, it really hits home, how this is impacting people," he said.

Roger Cosman/CBC
Roger Cosman/CBC

Vicki Hogarth, news director with CHCO Television, an independent television station in Saint Andrews, said she'd spoken to people worried about their homes and belongings.

"In one case we were standing with the family who were watching what they were pretty sure was their home on fire and they had their dog with them, but they couldn't find their cat in time," she told Information Morning. "They were hoping, just because it was a nice day, that the windows were open and the cat was safe."

She said she also saw people trying to get their livestock to safety.

Peter Vihvelin/Submitted
Peter Vihvelin/Submitted

Although one home has been lost, there have been multiple close calls that firefighters successfully beat back, Henderson said.

Bockus said she was speaking to some firefighters who were out at 2 a.m. hosing down the embers, trying to save peoples' homes, and she witnessed one man thank them.

"They had saved his house. So he was very, very emotional and very grateful for that."

This year has already been above average in forest fire size. Since the beginning of the year, 292 hectares have burned, which is 10 hectares higher than the 10-year average.

Take precautions

The province is reminding residents to take precautions when heavy smoke affects air quality.

Infants, children, pregnant women, older adults, smokers and people with chronic heart or lung disease should stay indoors to reduce their exposure to the outdoor air, it advises.

If smoke conditions become severe, people may experience eye or throat irritation and possibly shortness of breath.

People should reduce their levels of physical activity, as necessary, keep their windows closed, and turn off their air exchangers.

Anyone who experiences difficulty breathing or chest discomfort is advised to consult their physician or contact Tele-Care 811.