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'Make sure residents have a second way out': Halifax-area wildfire exposes lack of evacuation exits

Marion Gillespie will never forget the terrifying drive in her Jeep, down a road lined with flames and obscured by thick smoke, as she and her husband found themselves caught up in traffic as the Tantallon area burned out of control May 28.

“It was just pitch black, and all we could do was try to stay away from flames,” she recalls.

They had been trying to get back to their home in the Highland Park subdivision but were turned away by RCMP and ended up on Hammonds Plains Road, which was awash with fire.

A friend who had already gone to Gillespie’s home earlier to retrieve her pets got caught on the Chalamont Drive side, which has only one way in and out.

“And she was texting me to say, ‘I’m stuck in traffic I can’t get off your street,’” recalls Gillespie.

She says her friend managed to get out once RCMP arrived to start directing traffic.

But the harrowing experience only reinforced the need for a second egress route out of the area, something she and other residents had already spent years fighting for.

“It was supposed to be on the books for 2023/24,” says Gillespie, who is also co-chair of the Highland Park Ratepayers Association, “and the previous councillor dropped the ball, and it never went through.”

“So, this is where we are,” she adds with a shrug.

Gillespie says when she first moved into Highland Park 26 years ago, there were very few other residents in the area.

Then the neighbourhood rapidly expanded, as plots were sold, and developers built more homes.

But she says none of them seemed interested in putting in a second exit.

“It got to a point where it grew as large as it did,” says Gillespie, “our subdivision got stuck in the middle of things changing, (when it comes to) the rules and regulations.”

She said a winter house fire years earlier on Chalamont Drive, along with a domestic dispute involving an armed person, got the Ratepayers Association talking about pushing the city for a second exit.

“During that time, we’ve had different discussions with HRM and the province, and things just kind of slowed down,” she says.

Crews work on a new exit out of a suburb in the Halifax area. Some say a recent wildfire exposed a lack of evacuation routes in some communities. (Heidi Petracek/CTV)

But now, construction is underway on an emergency exit for Highland Park, connecting the end of Sylvania Terrance to Hammonds Plains Road.

The municipality used its powers during the State of Local Emergency to jumpstart the work, avoiding any bureaucratic hurdles.

It’s also creating a second egress for the Haliburton Hills subdivision, connecting Buckingham Drive to Highway 103. The city says the gravel portion of the road has been completed and a gate will be installed in a matter of days.

The municipal councillor for the Hammonds Plains area, Pam Lovelace, says the exit at Highland Park will eventually be made into a permanent public road.

“At this point, we’re just trying to be very quick,” says Coun. Lovelace. “This is the first time that we have seen this kind of an escalated concern as far as evacuation routes in the province.”

As for other neighbourhoods with the same concern, Lovelace says the city is working on the issue.

“It's very complex and working with all the various different departments as well as private landowners and ensuring that each community is able to be engaged as well,” she says. “Understanding what is best for that community, as well as any future growth that’s already planned for those communities.”

Lovelace says before amalgamation, the provincial government approved highway corridors to connect residential communities.

“Evacuation at those times, in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, really wasn’t considered,” she says. “Once amalgamation took place, and HRM created the regional plan ... all of this work is taking place understanding the importance of evacuation routes.”

In addition, other municipalities have evacuation route signs indicating how residents should leave a community in an emergency.

Lovelace supports that idea, although she says the province would have to take the lead on that, to ensure the signage was consistent throughout the province.

Ahsan Habib, director of the Transportation Collaboratory at Dalhousie University, says the type of rapid mass evacuation the city experienced during the wildfire was unprecedented.

He says most of his previous academic work in the study of evacuations in Halifax concentrated on events such as floods and hurricanes, which move less rapidly than wildfires.

But he says it’s important for municipalities to plan for all eventualities.

“We need to involve planners (and) engineers up front in evacuation planning and management,” he says, “at this point, it’s an exercise of more, ‘monitor and response’ (in an) emergency management way. But it needs to be more thoroughly thought through in advance so that we have some plan in place….and infrastructure development we are doing needs to be thought through.”

“Because the one that we experienced is not the last one,” he says, “there might be more, very different, more complex situations that may arise.”

“Make sure residents have a second way out,” says Gillespie.

As an evacuee still unable to go back home, Gillespie can’t help but notice the place where she’s staying now in Tantallon only has one access road.

She’s relieved no one was killed or seriously injured in the wildfire, but worries about what could happen in another emergency, if residents are faced with no way out.

For more Nova Scotia news, visit our dedicated provincial page. Top Stories


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