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Officials declare Halifax-area wildfire largely contained as rain brings relief

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Heavy rain and some military reinforcements arrived to assist efforts on Saturday to quell the wildfires that have destroyed homes and caused the evacuation of thousands of people across Nova Scotia.

A major Halifax-area wildfire that has destroyed 150 homes was 85 per cent contained and no longer spreading, officials said Saturday. The news was also good across the province, where Premier Tim Houston said the total number of active wildfires declined from 10 in the morning to five by mid-afternoon.

"If you step outside you will see something beautiful: rain, and hopefully lots of it," he told an afternoon briefing.

The only fire that remains out of control is one in Shelburne County in the southwestern corner of the province -- the largest in Nova Scotia's history -- which remains "scary," Houston said.

Meanwhile, at the provincial wildfire centre in Shubenacadie, north of Halifax, about 20 Canadian Armed Forces soldiers stood in the pouring rain outside a light armoured vehicle, or LAV.

Lt.-Col. Michael Blanchette said the initial contingent from CFB Gagetown in New Brunswick had arrived on a "fact-finding mission" to see what military support was needed in the effort to combat the fires.

He said the armoured vehicle has a thermal sight system that might be able to detect hidden hot spots, especially at night, while soldiers can provide "low-level firefighting capability" such as stamping out smaller hot spots after firefighters have gone through.

Blanchette said military members in Atlantic Canada are used to being called in for floods and winter storms, but he's never before responded to a wildfire.

"This is the first time for us," he said.

David Steeves, a technician of forest resources with Nova Scotia's Department of Natural Resources and Renewables, told reporters Saturday morning the Halifax-area fire was sitting at 9.5 square kilometres and is unlikely to grow due to a combination of firefighting efforts and long-awaited rain.

"We are moving from a state of out of control to a state of being held," he said. "And basically what that means is that, with the current resources that we have on site and with the suppression efforts that have taken place, the fire is not likely to spread."

Steeves said a number of areas of concern remain and crews continue to closely monitor hot spots around the fire's perimeter. He warned the blaze was far from out and embers could still hide deep in places where the rain doesn't penetrate, causing a risk of reignition.

"We could be here for weeks, we could be here for a couple of months before the incident commander is comfortable in saying this fire is out," he said.

The wildfire that broke out Sunday in the Halifax area raced through a number of subdivisions, consuming about 200 structures -- including 151 homes -- and forcing the evacuation of more than 16,000 people.

Environment Canada Meteorologist Bob Robichaud said between 25 and 50 millimetres of rain had fallen in parts of the province on Saturday, adding temperatures had also cooled. He said air quality across most of the affected areas had also greatly improved.

Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Deputy Fire Chief Dave Meldrum said Saturday morning that the rain has brought relief, but also raises the risk that firefighters could be hurt from slips or falls and makes for difficult working conditions.

"They're going to be very very dirty, they're going to be wet, they're going to be cold," he said of the firefighters. "So we welcome this rain but it's going to be a tough working day."

He said there were two reported injuries related to heat stress so far, and one firefighter bumped their head while moving equipment, but nobody has been seriously hurt.

While an evacuation order was lifted on Friday for some Halifax-area residents, the city said Saturday they may not be able to return to the most significantly impacted area for 10 to14 days.

Meldrum said the evacuation zone includes areas that have been heavily damaged by fire. He told an afternoon briefing there's still work to do before people can return, including checking for hot spots and verifying that infrastructure such as roads and electrical grids are intact.

In Shelburne County, meanwhile, 6,700 people -- about half the municipality's population -- remained out of their homes as the blaze that forced their evacuation continued to burn out of control

The Barrington Lake wildfire, which started Saturday, reached 230 square kilometres -- the largest recorded wildfire in the province's history. It has consumed at least 50 homes and cottages.

Dave Rockwood, a spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, said there was "cautious optimism" that there would be no further growth and that firefighters could use more direct tactics to contain it. Two other fires considered out of control as of Saturday morning were classified as "held" later in the day, he said.

Houston confirmed that schools in Shelburne County would be closed Monday and Tuesday.

A contingent of 17 firefighters from the northeastern United States also arrived at the wildfire centre later Saturday, where they were briefed before being deployed to help the fire-fighting efforts.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2023.

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