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Halifax looks at three possible emergency exits for subdivision where wildfire began

Residents are seen leaving the  Westwood Hills area via Hammonds Plains Road on May 28, 2023 as the wildfire spreads. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)
Residents are seen leaving the Westwood Hills area via Hammonds Plains Road on May 28, 2023 as the wildfire spreads. (Jeorge Sadi/CBC - image credit)

Exactly six months after a major wildfire began in an Upper Tantallon subdivision, Halifax will look at three options to create an emergency exit that residents have long called for.

A report coming to regional council Tuesday recommends that council direct staff to move ahead with the planning, design and engagement needed to build an emergency connection to Highway 103 from the Westwood Hills subdivision.

Dustin O'Leary, president of the Westwood Hills Residents' Association, said while people are "relieved" to finally see some details, it should not have taken this long.

"That's embarrassing and it's not OK. It shouldn't be this way," O'Leary said Friday.

Dustin O'Leary is president of the Westwood Hills Residents Association, and has lived in the Upper Tantallon neighbourhood for 15 years.
Dustin O'Leary is president of the Westwood Hills Residents Association, and has lived in the Upper Tantallon neighbourhood for 15 years.

Dustin O'Leary is president of the Westwood Hills Residents Association, and has lived in the Upper Tantallon neighbourhood for 15 years. (CBC)

The fire began on May 28 and destroyed 150 homes in Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains. Hundreds of people were caught in long lines of traffic in the area, with some people driving through smoke and walls of flame.

Although Westwood technically has the minimum two access points needed to meet Halifax's latest design guidelines, the report said they are very close to one another on Hammonds Plains Road which could create bottlenecks and delays.

Staff came up with three options based on various factors including topography, property ownership and connection length. They include a 500 metre-long road, one that is 950 metres further west, and a third one-kilometre option.

Halifax staff are asking for council's approval to move ahead with design work and final costs for three possible emergency exits connecting Westwood Hills to Highway 103
Halifax staff are asking for council's approval to move ahead with design work and final costs for three possible emergency exits connecting Westwood Hills to Highway 103

Halifax municipal staff are asking for council's approval to move ahead with design work and cost estimates for these three possible emergency exits connecting Westwood Hills to Highway 103 (Halifax Regional Municipality )

However, staff still have to do the design and costing of the exits, which O'Leary said will take more valuable time. He said construction must start as early as possible next spring.

"To think that we would be approaching conceivably the one-year anniversary of this fire without having a new egress built is just disturbing," O'Leary said.

Despite the challenging hilly and heavily wooded terrain in the area, the report said it appears to be "physically feasible" to develop a roadway.

The staff report said there are more than 20 private landowners holding property between Westwood and Highway 103. HRM installed two emergency roads out of other nearby subdivisions soon after the fire, Haliburton Hills and Highland Park, because they were built on municipal land.

Haliburton Hills emergency exit under construction to connect Buckingham Drive to Highway 103.
Haliburton Hills emergency exit under construction to connect Buckingham Drive to Highway 103.

Haliburton Hills emergency exit connects Buckingham Drive to Highway 103. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

Although Nova Scotia Power owns a network of service roads linked to dams and lakes between the subdivision and highway, the report said they would require "significant upgrades" to allow for egress. They would also be longer, ranging from 1.6 kilometres to four kilometres.

Council asked for the report back in June, after a motion from area councillor Pam Lovelace.

Lovelace agreed that having designs and estimates for the three route options now would have been ideal, as "this community, quite frankly, has waited long enough."

Coun. Pamela Lovelace represents District 13 of the Halifax Regional Municipality.
Coun. Pamela Lovelace represents District 13 of the Halifax Regional Municipality.

Coun. Pamela Lovelace represents District 13 of the Halifax Regional Municipality. (CBC)

The report considered connector roads between Westwood and nearby communities to allow for egress, but said there were limited options. Two could include connecting to the neighbouring Highland Park subdivision or Upper Hammonds Plains' Pockwock Road, but they are longer routes at two and three kilometres long.

If they were built there, they would need fuel breaks and vegetation management, the report said. The Halifax Green Network Plan also identifies those wooded areas as a potentially important ecological corridor that should be preserved.

Lovelace added that the upcoming long-term care facility with 144 rooms on Westwood Boulevard in the subdivision will bring in another vulnerable group who will need multiple egress options for emergencies.

"I would like to see the province of Nova Scotia step up with funding, with access through their provincial land," Lovelace said.

If Tuesday's motion passes, staff will speak with property owners involved in the three route options, ask the province to approve a highway connection and complete preliminary designs.

Staff will then come back to council with a preferred option and timeline for the exit, as well as funding options and price tags. The report said the project could be a strong candidate for the federal Disaster Mitigation and Adaptation Fund.

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