Newfoundland fires stabilizing as crews prepare to fight flames on foot

·3 min read
Changing weather conditions show the damage caused by a forest fire near the Bay d'Espoir Highway in central Newfoundland. Officials say air quality is better than expected and crews will be able to fight the fires on foot Thursday. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Changing weather conditions show the damage caused by a forest fire near the Bay d'Espoir Highway in central Newfoundland. Officials say air quality is better than expected and crews will be able to fight the fires on foot Thursday. (Darrell Roberts/CBC - image credit)
Darrell Roberts/CBC
Darrell Roberts/CBC

Smoke from two major forest fires burning in central Newfoundland won't severely affect air quality for at least the next 24 hours, the provincial Department of Public Safety said Thursday afternoon.

Although the fires are still considered out of control, the risk level from smoke is deemed low for the region and conditions now are "trending in a positive direction," the department said.

Favourable early-morning weather finally allowed crews to fight the fires on the ground.

Provincial forest fire duty officer Jeff Motty says the fire burning at Paradise Lake south of Grand Falls-Windsor has seen no change in size since Wednesday's last update, while the fire burning near the Bay d'Espoir Highway has shrunk by 155 hectares. The fires span 17,233 hectares and 5,614 hectares respectively.

"Things are getting more stable," Motty said Thursday morning.

"I don't want to jinx myself by saying something like 'we've turned a corner' because that happened to me last week, but we are definitely seeing a change in conditions on site that is more favourable."

The improving conditions are allowing the Bay d'Espoir Highway to remain open Thursday, but the Department of Transportation says the highway will be reassessed daily. Drivers should drive carefully, as visibility could be affected, and the department is asking people not to stop while on the road.

There is one other fire of note at Southern Lake, located north of Grand Falls-Windsor near the community of Point Leamington. That fire is around 283 hectares in size, Motty said.

A shift in the winds along with reduced smoke and less intense burning from the fires are allowing ground crews to tackle the fires on foot Thursday. Much of the firefighting so far has been accomplished by air, as conditions had been largely unsafe for firefighters to face directly.

"I believe the winds are going to be in our favour today. They're not going to be too high, so hopefully the smoke won't be a major issue for many communities that have been impacted in the past," Motty said.

Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador

A special air quality statement from Environment Canada remains in place for Grand Falls-Windsor and the surrounding area including Bishop's Falls and Badger.

Winds shifted from the south overnight, with officials forecasting that gusts could bring heavy smoke from the Paradise Lake fire into the region. However, Environment Canada meteorologist Mike Vandenberg said air quality has been better than initially expected.

"We haven't seen any evidence of smoke on the satellite in central, however it is pretty cloudy so it could be hiding things," Vandenberg said early Thursday morning.

"It seems like the air quality is much improved from what we were initially expecting … [but] if the fire changes at all through the day today, it certainly could loft a bit of smoke to Grand Falls-Windsor and that general area."

Winds are expected to stay southerly at around 15 km/h throughout Thursday and into Friday, according to Environment Canada.

The area will see a mix of sun and cloud to go with the wind and temperature highs near 21 C. Skies will cloud over overnight, with the temperature lowering to 13 C.

Air quality statements in other central Newfoundland communities lifted Thursday morning, but Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop's Falls and Botwood all remain in a state of emergency.

CBC
CBC

Forest access roads remain closed despite the highway reopening, with Motty reminding cabin owners in the area they shouldn't be in the area to check on their properties.

"Just because it is within [the perimeter] doesn't mean your cabin is burnt. We're actually making the transition now to where we can actually get people on the ground … and get helicopters to fly those areas."

Motty says crews hope to do structure assessments by flyover in the coming days and share details with cabin owners directly.

Meanwhile, more than one hundred patients and long-term care residents moved from the region as a precaution will begin returning on Thursday and continuing into the weekend, Central Health said.

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