In the days since he lost his home in the wildfires that swept through his Halifax-area subdivision, Dwayne Melnick has had a mission to focus on: find a place to stay. Speak to insurance companies and contractors. Begin making a list of belongings for insurance purposes.
Focusing, he said, helps him keep moving forward.
“I’m retired military of a long career, so I’m able to focus on the mission,” he said in a phone interview. “But at a certain point the emotions take over as well. So it comes and goes.”
Officials said Sunday the wildfire that tore through the Halifax area is 100 per cent contained. Nova Scotia’s natural resources department said the Tantallon fire northwest of the provincial capital’s downtown is now under control, meaning it is not expected to grow but is not yet out.
But for the thousands of residents who were forced from their homes, uncertainty and questions remain.
Melnick said he has no doubt that he wants to rebuilt his home. But he’s not sure how long it will take, even though he’s already started to speak with contractors.
“I know there has to be a lot of environmental procedures to take place first before they can even look at breaking ground or tearing down the old foundation,” he said. “But like I said, I got an early jump on things just to stay focused.”
While the 49-year-old was able to safely leave his Hammond Plains-area home along with his wife and two dogs, he’s still hoping for good news about their cat, Brooklyn, who was outside when the fire came and remains missing.
The blaze broke out a week ago, forcing 16,000 people from their suburban homes and damaging or destroying some 200 structures, including 151 homes.
Dave Steeves, a technician of forest resources with the natural resources department, said the fire may be contained but is far from over. What follows, he said, will be a “labour-intensive process” of going from home to home to ensure all hot spots are extinguished and that everything is safe for residents.
Residents from the worst-hit areas anxiously lined up on Sunday at a sports facility that has been turned into a resource centre, with many hoping for news or photos of their homes.
Neighbours hugged and chatted outside the doors. Some left with relieved smiles; others in tears.
Nicole Boudreau, a resident of the Hammonds Plains area, was among those eager for information.
“We don’t really know anything right now, to be honest,” she said. “We think our house is still standing. We haven’t heard that it’s not.”
Boudreau, whose household includes two children and her 89-year-old mother, said she’s grateful everyone got out safely but is “very anxious to know what the next step is.”
Jackie Norrie, another resident, said she also believes her home is still standing, based on aerial photos and from what she’s heard from her neighbours.
She said that while people whose residences have been badly damaged or destroyed have been sent photos or allowed to view them through the windows on a bus tour, other residents are struggling to get information about their properties.
The city told residents on Saturday it could take up to 14 days for people of the hardest-hit areas to be allowed back. Officials have said firefighters need to ensure all hot spots are extinguished, and infrastructure such as roads and electrical grids need to be checked.
On Sunday, more residents were being allowed home when the evacuation order was lifted for two more areas near the fire. Halifax Mayor Mike Savage told a briefing that the city was moving to the “recovery phase,” but that people in the hardest-hit zones “must be prepared to be out for a number of days yet.”
Norrie said she understands that residents can’t go back immediately, but she just wants to know her home is safe.
“Pictures, video, anything. We just want to know,” she said.
Deputy Fire Chief David Meldrum warned that residents can expect to see “a lot of difficult things” when they’re finally allowed to return home to the hardest-hit areas.
“They’ll see properties which are simply nothing but foundations at this time,” he told an afternoon briefing. “They’ll see outbuildings that are destroyed, garages and sheds. They’ll see vehicles destroyed or damaged.”
Others will see melted siding or holes in their walls where fire was dug out, he said. Others will find their properties untouched, even if those next door have been burned.
“The random nature of the destruction is quite startling,” he said.
In Shelburne County, meanwhile, the Barrington Lake wildfire — the largest in the province’s history — continues to burn out of control.
The blaze covered 250 square kilometres as of Sunday morning and has destroyed at least 50 homes and cottages.
Dave Rockwood, of Nova Scotia’s Department of Natural Resources, said two more smaller fires in the province had been brought under control, which will allow more resources to be shifted to fighting the Barrington Lake fire. He said crews were being helped by steady rain that had already dumped 35 millimetres on the area as of morning.
Premier Tim Houston told the briefing that the improved situation means the province can lift the ban on activity and travel in the woods as of midnight Sunday. He noted that a burn ban in still in effect, and anyone who violates it can be subjected to a $25,000 fine.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published June 4, 2023.