PORTERS LAKE, N.S. – Ash floated through the air as blustery winds whipped up a unpredictable brush fire in a heavily wooded area east of Halifax on Saturday, destroying two houses and forcing 5,000 people from their homes.
No injuries were reported, but about 200 people had registered at emergency shelters since the fire began on Friday afternoon near Porters Lake. Three other houses were damaged, the siding on the buildings scorched or melted.
A further 2,500 people living just west of the fire zone have received notice that they may be ordered to leave their homes if the blaze spreads.
Steve Auton, a firefighter who was resting in Minesville after eight hours amid the flames, said it was a “crazy, big fire” that constantly changed directions as it leapt over some of the many lakes that dot this scenic, rural area.
“If you don’t have your head up all the time, it can sneak up on you and cause a lot of problems,” said the 43-year-old firefighter, one of about 100 battling the blaze.
“Every time you thought you’d made a little bit of headway, you’d realize that you were now downwind from the fire because it had curved around you.”
At least three water bombers and three helicopters attacked the head of the fire as it raced southward, scorching a jagged swath up to five kilometres wide and 15 kilometres long.
For the second day, a huge plume of billowing grey and blue smoke could be seen 20 kilometres away in Halifax.
Auton described how one home he saw was a charred wreck, while another just metres away was untouched.
“You realize these people are going to come home to nothing,” he said. “It’s tough to look at.”
Heather Stronach, 28, became emotional when asked about her family home, built by her parents more than 30 years ago on the same road as the two houses that burned down.
“This is our memories and they’re not letting us get in there to get any of our memories,” said Stronach, a nurse who went to an evacuation shelter in Dartmouth with her parents.
“I’m feeling lost and I’m feeling upset because this is the house I grew up in and the fire came within feet of it. I’d love to have the photo albums. … They’re sitting in my bedroom. And my mom’s wedding dress, I’d love to get that out.”
Marian Waltman, 56, another evacuee at the shelter, said the wait was difficult.
“You feel helpless because you can’t go back, you can’t go help,” she said.
RCMP Cpl. Joe Taplin said two people were arrested and released for being in an area that has been closed to the public because of the fire.
“It’s for the safety of the residents and their own personal property that we have to keep people out of there,” he said.
Three roads in the area, Highways 7, 107 and 207, have been closed to traffic.
Chris Ottaway of Lake Echo said some local residents believe embers from a camp fire sparked the blaze.
A number of recreational ATV drivers are known to camp near a quarry pit east of Lake Echo.
Ottaway said loggers working near the pit told him the blaze was started by a camper’s fire that wasn’t properly extinguished.
Taplin said it was still too early to say exactly what caused the fire.
The province’s director of forest protection said it would be up to police and fire officials to determine what sparked the blaze.
However Walter Fanning confirmed that the patten of the fire’s spread indicates it started between Lake Echo and Porters Lake, in the region of the gravel pit.
The two houses that were razed were on Candy Mountain Road, south of Minesville.
Roy Hollett, deputy chief of the Halifax Regional Fire Department, said wind was the most difficult factor. Peak gusts on Friday reached 90 kilometres per hour.
“As the wind moves around and it picks up a new fuel source then it escalates in size and intensity,” said Hollett.
Some residents said the fire was also fed by dead, dried-out trees toppled almost five years ago by hurricane Juan, a powerful storm that caused widespread damage in Nova Scotia.
John Awalt said the amount of dry, dead trees scattered in Lawrencetown was an accident waiting to happen.
“You’d just see timber … fallen like a bunch of chopsticks you threw on the ground,” said Awalt, 60.
“That’s been sitting there for years. Can you imagine how dry that is? It wouldn’t take much. It is just one big giant torch.”
Awalt said there were about 22 dead trees on his property, and he imagined it was much worse deeper in the woods.
Auton said as firefighters worked in the woods they noticed large amounts of debris from hurricane Juan.
“With all the debris left over from Juan and some of our storms, it’s pretty tricky in the woods. It’s pretty rough terrain,” he said.
Taplin said he was concerned the fire would regain strength when night fell and the water bombers were grounded.
There were other smaller brush fires burning in the province on Saturday, including one in Tantallon, west of Halifax, and two separate fires in Shelburne County.
Officials said the fire in Tantallon was contained and had caused no damage to any houses.
Jennifer Gavin of the Natural Resources Department said the fires in Shelburne were in close proximity to each other in the Goose Lake area.