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Central Newfoundland forest fires expected to 'grow significantly'

Friday, August 5th 2022, 5:44 pm - Fires expected to burn cabins, says Forestry Minister Derrick Bragg

Three large wildfires in central Newfoundland continue to burn out of control and the province may need help from the federal government to regain control.

Premier Andrew Furey said Friday that he had been in contact with the federal government to ask for help if it's needed.

Federal Minister of Emergency Preparedness Bill Blair tweeted shortly before 3 p.m. NT that he had spoken with provincial Public Safety Minister John Hogan about the active fires and said the federal government "stands ready to support the province as they manage the situation."

Hot weather and high winds have kept the fires going, stranding travellers on both ends of the Bay d'Espoir Highway as closures due to safety concerns continue to disrupt the region.

(CBC) Newfoundland forest fires August 2022 Multiple large forest fires are continue to burn in central Newfoundland. (Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture/Twitter)

Incident Commander Jason Glode told CBC News on Friday the fires are "extremely active" and it isn't safe to have fire crews on the ground.

"[Water] bombers have been able to do some work but the head of the fires are very volatile so they're not able to get at them," Glode said.

"They've grown significantly in size and they're going to continue to grow significantly in size today, tomorrow and into the next day."

The amount of smoke and the size of all three fires are posing problems for keeping tabs on how much ground the fires are covering.

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Glode said helicopters can't navigate through the smoke to get accurate updates, but he guesses the Bay d'Espoir Highway fire, has grown from about 1,000 hectares earlier in the week to about 1,500 to 2,000 hectares on Friday. A hectare is 10,000 square metres.

The Paradise Lake fire, said Glode, started as three fires but has combined into one large fire, which he said could cover as much as 4,000 hectares by Saturday.

The third fire burning in the region is located near Southern Lake. It's grown from about 80 hectares at the outset to about 170 hectares on Friday, and it's still getting larger.

CBC Thumbnail Mallory Slade and her family drove past flames and smoke as a forest fire burns along the Bay d'Espoir highway. (Submitted by Mallory Slade)

"The biggest concern right now would be smoke. Smoke is going to be impacting most of the communities to the north of these fires," Glode said.

"With the amount of smoke and material that's being thrown off them our concern is also with any hot material that may be falling down from the sky."

Glode said residents in the area should take preventative measures such as wetting down property and storing fuels away properly.

He said some cabins near Paradise Lake are basically in the fire. There's about 200 in the area.

"At this point we're no longer able to get in there and once the fire clears enough that we can get in, we'll do an assessment of any damage."

Forestry Minister Derrick Bragg said there's proof that one cabin had already burned down, witnessed during a flyover on Friday. He said he had also witnessed smoke from other cabins.

"There will be more than one cabin burned out of this," Bragg said.

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Resources spread thin

On Wednesday, Newfoundland and Labrador acquired the help of three aircraft and seven fire crew members from Quebec. One spotting plane has already arrived and two waterbombers are expected to be in Gander by 4 p.m. on Friday. The resources and crew members will stick around for about a week to help push back the fires.

The situation over the last two weeks has been tough on provincial resources as flare ups have kept crews busy while hot weather persists.

Bragg, whose department has been at the forefront of the fire response since July 24, told CBC News on Friday afternoon that the province was looking at imposing a fire ban on all outdoor fires in the central and eastern regions of the island.

Just after 6 p.m. the department announced the fire ban, which prohibits the setting of fires on forest land or within 300 meters of forest land in central and eastern Newfoundland. The ban is in effect between the hours of midnight on Saturday to midnight on Aug. 16.

"That's as a precaution because we right now have all of our resources in central. We cannot afford any flareup anywhere else, to be honest," Bragg said.

"We have skeleton teams left throughout the province."

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As for reopening the Bay d'Espoir Highway, Glode said that's the goal but safety remains a priority.

"If the crews determine that we're able to open it with tanker support and helicopters, we will do so. But right now given the fire, weather, behaviour and that kind of stuff it's like we'd have to roll [with it]," he said.

"It will not open today, it may not open tomorrow, so everybody needs to be ready that it could be extended for a long period of time."

The Canadian Red Cross and Salvation Army are delivering emergency services for those stranded on the Trans-Canada Highway because of the closure.

The Red Cross is also coordinating emergency lodging for people who live in the areas affected by the Bay d'Espoir Highway closure.

A congregate shelter has been set up at the Salvation Army Citadel in Grand Falls-Windsor. The shelter can be accessed any time after 6 p.m. Friday.

With files from Peter Cowan

This story, written by Mike Moore, was originally published by CBC News on August 5, 2022.

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