ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — The reopening of a Newfoundland highway that had been closed for days because of raging wildfires provided hope Tuesday that much-needed supplies would finally arrive in stranded communities along the island's south coast.
Steve Crewe, mayor of Hermitage-Sandyville, said in an interview he hoped the Bay d'Espoir Highway would be open long enough for seven or eight trucks to bring groceries to communities in his area on Newfoundland's Connaigre Peninsula. The rural, wooded road is the only one connecting the region with the rest of the province, and its prolonged closure meant shelves in local stores were growing bare.
"Hopefully by suppertime tonight, we'll be in better shape," Crewe said Tuesday.
Officials say the forest fires in central Newfoundland began on July 24 with a lightning strike. As of Tuesday afternoon, the province's Forestry Department said the two largest fires covered an area more than 162 square kilometres. The blazes remained out of control.
The Bay d'Espoir Highway has been plagued with intermittent closures since the fires began. Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey told reporters Tuesday afternoon the road "may not be passable for long." The reopening would allow at least some desperately needed supplies to get through, Furey said, "hopefully for an extended period of time." He said there was already one transport truck en route to the area.
Cooke Aquaculture has several operations on the Connaigre Peninsula, and the company said Tuesday in a news release it will use two of its large vessels to bring up to 75 pallets of food and supplies to cut-off communities in the area. The news came after two other plans to distribute food to the stranded communities had fallen through.
On Sunday, the province hatched a plan to dispatch a small ferry to the area to transport supplies and relocate stranded people. But the vessel broke down, and officials said Monday night the boat was docked in the provincial capital of St. John's.
There were also plans to send a fleet of helicopters carrying groceries and supplies to the Connaigre region on Tuesday morning. But as much-needed rain fell onto the fire area, the smoke and wind conditions made it impossible for the helicopters to make the trip, Crewe said.
"Every time we set something up, something will stop it," Crewe said. He cracked a joke about not knowing what people on the Connaigre Peninsula have done to deserve the string of misfortune.
Lloyd Blake, mayor of Harbour Breton, located about 50 kilometres east of Hermitage-Sandyville, said in an interview Tuesday that his town had also been counting on the helicopter deliveries. "People are still pretty good … they're running out of bare essentials — things like the milk, vegetables and fruits," Blake said.
Harbour Breton hosted a Come Home Year event over the weekend, inviting all those who had moved away from the community to come home for a visit. Blake said about 100 people remained stranded in the town as of Tuesday morning following the weekend's events.
Meanwhile, people stranded in the area and hoping to flee were lining up in the tiny town of Pool's Cove to catch a small ferry to the Burin Peninsula, where roads were open and free of fires. Pool's Cove is on the eastern side of the Connaigre Peninsula and home to about 180 people, said resident Juanita Andrews in an interview Tuesday.
She said about 100 people were lined up on the wharf on Sunday, hoping to hop on the 30-person ferry to get off the peninsula. On Monday, there were about 60 more people waiting for the boat, she said.
Andrews said she and about nine other residents have been keeping the hopeful travellers well fed with sandwiches and snacks down at the wharf — even though Pool's Cove was also running out of groceries. She said she invited a few of them into her home on Sunday afternoon to give them a more comfortable wait for the boat.
"When there is a need in the community of Pool's Cove, we step in and we meet that need, no matter what it is or where the people are from," Andrews said.
Provincial officials called a state of emergency in the Connaigre Peninsula area on Saturday and in central Newfoundland towns near the fires, including Grand Falls-Windsor, located about 25 kilometres from the largest of the two fires.
Furey said Tuesday that some patients from health-care facilities in Grand Falls-Windsor, including residents of long-term care facilities, had been evacuated as a precaution, but he said emergency services at the town's hospital were still running.
"I know it's a stressful time for the citizens of central Newfoundland," Furey said. "Let me tell you that you have the full force of all levels of government across Canada helping, and wanting to help, navigate through this difficult time."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2022.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press