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Out-of-control fires have Newfoundland towns on edge as crisis moves into 3rd week

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Two massive forest fires burning in central Newfoundland near the Bay d’Espoir Highway and Paradise Lake were still out of control Monday morning, after significantly growing over the weekend.

A state of emergency was declared in the Grand Falls-Windsor, Bishop’s Falls and Connaigre Peninsula areas on Saturday night, and extended to the Botwood area on Sunday. Premier Andrew Furey asked residents to prepare for a possible evacuation.

The Bay d’Espoir Highway, which connects the Connaigre Peninsula on Newfoundland’s south coast to the remainder of the island, is still closed and will remain that way until further notice.

While officials had thought the fires would merge and become one over the weekend, Jeff Motty, provincial forest fire duty officer, said that is not predicted to happen Monday.

According to remote sensing technology, Motty said the Paradise Lake fire is estimated to be 6,614 hectares, while the Bay d’Espoir fire is about 5,273 hectares.

He said in an interview Monday morning it is too early to say if the fires got even bigger overnight. 

Motty said there is still open flame and heavy smoke coming from the fires which has made firefighting challenging.

“Even with water bombers it was too much smoke to safely through work those fires there yesterday,” Motty told CBC’s Newfoundland Morning.

Disaster services volunteers in safety vests chat with travellers stranded by the fires blocking the Bay D'Espoir highway. One volunteer holds an exhausted young child with curly hair.
A family waits in Bishop’s Falls alongside Salvation Army disaster services volunteers, looking for a clear window to navigate the Bay D’Espoir Highway. (Danny Arsenault/CBC)

Motty said there is some positive news as temperatures at the site are expected to be lower Monday, at about 23 C, and winds are expected to be weaker and change direction, blowing from the northwest, on Monday afternoon. 

Motty said the more favourable weather conditions are expected to blow smoke away from Grand Falls-Windsor and Gander and more toward eastern Newfoundland. 

“So those communities that have been getting smoked in recently hopefully will get a little reprieve today,” he said.

‘Hopefully make some good headway’

Motty said there are eight water bombers, two bird dog aircraft and air attack officers — which will observe the fire  — ready to fight the flames.

“So as soon as we can get on that fire, we’re going to hopefully make some good headway,” said Motty. 

Meanwhile, Motty said the Paradise Lake fire is close to power transmission lines and jumped one of the lines.

In a statement Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said the fire has crossed two transmission lines from Bay d’Espoir and it did cause the lines to trip. They said both lines were re-energized and the trip didn’t cause an outage for customers. 

N.L. Hydro said the lines have been reliably in service since Saturday, but fire increases the risk of a trip due to smoke and soot contamination.

Meanwhile, Hydro said the fire has not reached the Labrador-Island Link power transmission corridor, which lies between the fire and communities.

The utility said it doesn’t anticipate any power outages for customers on the island.

He said they’re using the area around another power transmission line, south of Grand Falls-Windsor, to create a firebreak. He said bulldozers are working along the 30-metre-wide transmission line to dig and create a gap in vegetation to stop the fire from spreading. 

“They’ll create a 90-metre firebreak. So we’re making great, great progress on that,” he said.

A road, as seen from behind the windshield of a vehicle. The sky is overcast and the air is smoky. Charred vegetation can be seen on the side of the road.
Charred trees and vegetation line parts of the Bay D’Espoir Highway after a large forest fire swept through the area, closing the highway. (Submitted by Alisha Joe)

Motty said Parks Canada is also pitching in with some prescribed burning to make firebreaks more effective.

“We’ve got a lot of different strategies between ground crews, air crews, prescribed burn and firebreaks that we’re using to hopefully protect communities from these fires.” 

Air quality warnings

Meanwhile, Environment Canada meteorologist Rodney Barney said the weather will play a major factor in how the fires behave over the next few days. 

Environment Canada has issued a special air quality statement spanning from Gander to the Bonavista Peninsula as smoke from the wildfires reduces air quality.

WATCH | Premier Andrew Furey tells residents of towns near out-of-control fires to prepare for a possible evacuation: 
out of control fires have newfoundland towns on edge as crisis moves into 3rd week 2

N.L. declares state of emergency amid worst wildfire situation since 1961

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Duration 1:56

Newfoundland and Labrador has declared a state of emergency as a result of what Premier Andrew Furey called the worst wildfire situation in the province since 1961.

“Fortunately, the winds are much weaker today, so that’s generally favourable for the firefighters,” said Barney.

He said winds will gusting from 20 to 40 kilometres per hour, but with dry conditions they could still cause erratic fire behaviour.

Meanwhile, Barney is eyeing rain that could shower the province on Tuesday. However, the heaviest rainfall — between 15 to 25 millimetres — is expected over the southern half of the island and toward the Avalon Peninsula, while only five to 10 millimetres of rain is forecast for areas where the fires are burning.

“Not huge amounts for central, but certainly it’ll help,” said Barney.

While Furey has urged people near the fire to be on standby, no evacuation order has been given as of Monday morning.

A bus will evacuate people from Grand Falls-Windsor who are concerned about possible poor air quality from the forest fires in central Newfoundland at 11 a.m. NT. According to a statement on the town’s website, the bus will take passengers to an evacuation shelter run by the provincial government in Deer Lake. There are pickup locations at the Joe Byrne Memorial Stadium and at Windsor Stadium.

In Bishop’s Falls, residents who want to leave the area due to possible smokey conditions and poor air quality can meet at the Salvation Army Church or call the town’s office if they require transportation to the church. The town is asking residents to pack essential items like cash, prescription medication, eye glasses, changes of clothing and personal items.

People wishing to leave the area should arrive at muster stations by 10 a.m. NT and anyone requiring transportation should contact the fire hall, according to the statement. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

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