Churchill Falls residents on edge over forest fire after hasty evacuation

An evacuation order on Wednesday night put hundreds on the move in minutes

Hundreds of people who fled in a hurry from the power-generating town of Churchill Falls in central Labrador have found refuge in towns far away, and are now waiting to see if a fire just on the outskirts of their home will prove disastrous.

On Wednesday night, forestry officials ordered the hasty evacuation of Churchill Falls, a company town that exists to keep Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro's generating station running. The massive hydroelectric plant provides power to the province and about 15 percent of neighbouring Quebec's power.

One of two nearby fires is on the doorstep of the community, separated only by the Churchill River — a waterway that flames could quickly cross.

On Thursday, Hydro spokesperson Jill Pitcher said a few dozen people are still on site and the plant is still in production. However, she said the weather forecast — with wind, high temperatures and dryness — is concerning.

At the moment, Pitcher said smoke is a risk factor for operations, as it can affect insulators and affect transmission as well as cause trips.

CANADA'S WILDFIRES: Visit The Weather Network's wildfire hub to keep up with the latest on the active start to wildfire season across Canada.

Residents were asked to be out of the community by 8:15 p.m. AT Wednesday, and were told to head to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, about 287 kilometres away. There is only one road connecting the towns.

Content continues below

Provincial forest fire duty officer Bryan Oke told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning Thursday that the fire — according to the latest available report — was just three to four kilometres south of Churchill Falls.

The fire, though, had not jumped the south of the Churchill River. He said he is hoping the geography will help firefighters with their efforts.

Oke said all four of the province's water bombers are being used to contain the fire, as well as five helicopters. He said requests have been made with federal officials for additional resources, including a fire behaviour specialist.

Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said a small crew of essential personnel will stay on site at the generating station as long as it is safe to do so.

Environment Canada said Churchill Falls set a weather record on Wednesday, with a high of 32.6°C.

Pack up and go

Beverly Bennett made the journey out of Churchill Falls Wednesday evening with her child and dog.

Content continues below

"You kind of had to pack and go very quickly. We had about 45 minutes from the time we received the message. It's short but then the fire was big. So we had to move," she told CBC News on Thursday.

churchill-falls-wildfire via CBC (Sabrina Morris)

Forestry officials in Newfoundland and Labrador have ordered the evacuation of the Labrador community of Churchill Falls as a wildfire continues to grow out of control. (Submitted by Sabrina Morris)

RELATED: Lightning-caused wildfires burn the most area in Canada, and that may increase

However, her husband is still in Churchill Falls where he's working. Bennett said she was able to speak with him early Thursday.

"The town right now is not too bad. It's smokey but he's gone for a rest and he's got to go back in again for another shift tonight," said Bennett.

"It's hard leaving everything behind, as it is for everyone else in the town. But safety comes first."

Bennett said the people still in town, like her husband, are sending out updates to let them know their homes are safe.

Content continues below

Meanwhile, she said the YMCA team has been welcoming and were quick to help people connect to other services, like available homes to stay in and dog parks.

"They've been feeding us and stuff. So it's been a great experience. That's been one big relief," said Bennett.

'It's crazy,' man says of flight from Churchill Falls

Terry Griffin, who was working in the town, said he was able to hit the road quickly after getting an order — and then drove into a raging thunderstorm.

"It's crazy. And then we ran into this crazy storm coming through. That was nuts," he said.

"I've never seen nothing like it before. Chased out of town by a forest fire and I was almost thinking of going back, that's how bad the storm was."

terry-griffin via CBC (Heidi Atter/CBC News)

Terry Griffin, who was working in Churchill Falls when the evacuation order came, says he already had a bag packed and was able to leave quickly. (Heidi Atter/CBC News)

Content continues below

Churchill Falls resident Robert Dawe said Thursday he felt exhausted after only getting 2½ hours sleep. He said the evacuation "felt like something out of a movie."

But he said everyone he saw leaving on the highway did so in a calm manner. As traffic was bumper to bumper during a storm, he said evacuees were "treated to quite the light show."

beverly-bennett  via CBC (Patrick Butler/radio-canada)

Beverly Bennett said she was hoping an evacuation order wouldn't come but she was glad she got out in time with her family. (Patrick Butler/radio-canada)

Susan Chislett, who had arrived with her family at the designated check-in point at the local YMCA, said driving out the town she was born and raised in was "surreal."

"We're looking in the rear view mirror and we're looking and saying it's so dark back there and we have everything we need in the truck because we have us," she told CBC News, standing next to her daughter, Madison Chislett.

While she has seen fires before, she said it never came to an evacuation order before.

Content continues below

"We didn't really think it was a possibility, I guess, or we didn't want to think that it was a possibility until it actually hit home when people were saying 'this could be bad.'"

'We'll just go day by day'

Chislett said throughout the week they had been getting messages about the fires but hadn't thought it would lead to an evacuation order.

"Basically it was a typical day in Churchill Falls until we'd seen a fire that we actually thought was somewhat put out, basically erupt again. And so we knew it was starting to burn again," said Chislett.

She said her husband came back from work and said he had seen the smoke.

"It was at that point we kind of just said 'OK, let's just sit and do what we've got to do.'"

Not everyone headed east for safety. Some travelled west. Labrador City mayor Belinda Adams said Thursday she was anticipating the arrival of as many as 70 people.

Content continues below
fire-hazard-map via CBC ( Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

Newfoundland and Labrador's fire hazards dashboard on Thursday morning showed two out-of-control fires west of the power-generating town of Churchill Falls. The closer one is posing a significant risk. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

SEE ALSO: Key wildfire triggers in Canada and tips to prevent their ignition

Madison Chislett said they didn't have much time to get out. "It was pretty quick," said Madison. In her haste to grab what she needed, Madison said she forgot to pack socks.

Chislett said most things — like socks and toothbrushes — but she recalled telling her husband when they arrived at the evacuation check-in point they were safe and had already arranged to stay with family.

"That's the main thing and we'll just go day by day. We'll see what happens," said Chislett.

She said many people helped get them to safety. While they were driving out of town, police officers were there to ask them if they were okay and took their names. When they arrived in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, there was a "full brigade of people checking on us."

There was also someone to guide them to the YMCA, even out during the storm. "It's heartwarming," said Chislett.

Content continues below

Chislett hopes they have a home to go back to, adding it's where her daughter grew up.

"We can always rebuild if we need to and thousands have done that. And we've watched them and helped them to do it. So it's our turn now to kinda bite the bullet and do what we've got to do to make sure we're all safe and happy and healthy."

susan-chislett-and-her-daughter-madison via CBC (Heidi Atter/CBC News)

Susan Chislett and her daughter Madison say it’s been heartwarming to see the community response to the emergency that forced them leave their home in Churchill Falls. (Heidi Atter/CBC News)

Elizabeth Power, 12, was also at the YMCA, said she believed everything would turn out okay.

"We're going to figure this out and there's people who are willing to help us if something happens and we're in trouble," she said.

"They're going to be safe eventually."

WATCH NOW: These are the major reasons wildfires start in Canada

Thumbnail courtesy of Trina Myles Wilson

This article was originally published for CBC News.