June 15, 2008

Anxious Residents Forced to Leave Their Homes Wait for News As Brush Fire Burns


COLE HARBOUR, N.S. - Clive Jones was choosing new kitchen flooring for his rural Nova Scotia house when he found out the property he'd fallen in love with a decade ago had been destroyed by a brush fire.

On Sunday, Jones sat anxiously in a packed emergency centre waiting to be taken to the site of his home - one of two houses that were lost in the out-of-control blaze on the outskirts of Halifax.

"It's the one thing that's going to seal the deal as it were," said Jones, 51, who shared the house with his wife and adult daughter.

"At the moment, there is still an element of disbelief. Until I see it with my own eyes, I won't know it's true."

More than 5,000 people have been forced to abandon their homes since the large, wind-whipped fire broke out Friday near Porters Lake, about 30 kilometres from Halifax.

Stiff winds that had been fuelling the fire subsided Sunday.

Officials allowed about 1,000 displaced residents to return to their properties on Sunday after their neighbourhoods were deemed safe.

RCMP said more than 125 firefighters were on the ground and seven aircraft were battling the blaze, which stretched three kilometres wide and seven kilometres long on Sunday afternoon.

While the flames have destroyed two homes and damaged about a dozen other properties, there were no injuries reported.

Jones said he still had to contact his insurance company, but was determined to build again in the area, though he feared the fire-ravaged area would never be the same.

He was among a number of residents who were taken by bus Sunday to see their damaged properties for the first time.

The wait was becoming tedious, he said, while sitting in the makeshift evacuation centre at a Cole Harbour recreational complex.

"Friday night there was a laughing and joking, Saturday lunch time there was a lot of disbelief and horror, now I suppose there's a lot of reality setting in," said Jones, who moved 11 years ago to Nova Scotia from England.

"It's getting worse every hour."

Many evacuees have been staying with friends and family or in hotels, but 40 spent Saturday night at the emergency shelter.

During the day, some residents sat together and ate while others crowded around a large map trying to determine where their house was in relation to the fire.

On one wall in the centre, someone hung a colourful poster that read Happy Father's Day.

RCMP Cpl. Joe Taplin could not say when the remaining evacuees would be allowed to return home.

"Our main objective is personal safety of the people and we cannot let people into a volatile area if it's still going to be unsafe for them," he said, adding four people had been arrested since Friday after being found in closed areas.

Evacuee Linda Spears described the wait as "tense," but said police, firefighters and emergency-response workers have kept residents calm and up to date on developments.

"They've told us what they can, they don't want to scare us because there's so many rumours," she said.

The retiree said her house is located near a road where two houses burned down.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but rumours were circulating among some evacuees that a camp fire was to blame.

Taplin said police were investigating in the area of a Porters Lake school, but would not release any more details.

"We believe there is an origin but I can't release any more details on that," he told reporters.

"They did photograph that scene and take some evidence from there."

He also quashed rumours about people sneaking into closed areas and looting evacuated houses.

Once fire victims return home, Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald reassured them the province would work to provide some sort of assistance, but was unable to give specifics.

"There are emergency-type programs available, but there are obviously issues around that if it deals with property, around insurance and things of that nature and whether federal programs would also kick in," he told reporters after speaking to residents at a briefing.

"We'll do all that we can, but I would encourage folks if they're wondering about that to contact their (legislative representative's office) or my office directly and we'll get the information."