Thick smoke hampers battle against forest fire in western Labrador

WABUSH, N.L. – Thick smoke from a forest fire that continued to rage in western Labrador Saturday hampered efforts to fight the blaze that has forced the evacuation of this small mining community.

Air quality concerns due to the fire burning four kilometres away forced residents to leave their homes Friday night as the town declared a state of emergency.

“For the first two hours this morning we couldn’t actually put any crews on the ground or aerial support because there was so much local smoke,” said Chuck Porter, a conservation officer with the Department of Natural Resources.

Although four waterbombers were on hand Saturday, poor visibility limited crews to using only one aircraft at a time, said an official with fire and emergency services.

Smoke also prevented the planes from loading with water from Wabush Lake, diverting them instead to the town reservoir. This led to town officials advising residents in the area to boil their water.

“The smoke has settled in the community and that’s the reason why, the main reason why, we evacuated at this time,” Kevin O’Brien, the minister responsible for the province’s fire and emergency services, told The Canadian Press.

“It’s a sizeable fire and it’s been going for several days.”

Approximately 1,400 displaced Wabush residents had registered with the Canadian Red Cross in nearby Labrador City by Saturday morning, most were being accommodated by friends and families in the area.

Of the towns nearly 1,800 residents, 79 chose to disregard the voluntary evacuation order and have stayed in their homes. Emergency personnel are in regular contact with them.

Fire and Emergency Services said the blaze hadn’t advanced any closer to Wabush by Saturday afternoon, nor had it grown overnight, but it continued to burn.

“The challenge of the day is the wind,” said O’Brien. “We have to reassess on a nearly minute-by-minute basis to make sure you’re on the right flank of the fire.”

Nearly 30 forest fire specialists were on hand to help fight the blaze.

“We have no rain to help us at all, so it’s all by waterbomber and helicopter resources that we’re trying to keep the fire in control,” said O’Brien.

The fire interrupted Internet and long-distance phone service in the area, including 911 calls, after it broke a fiber-optic cable 20 kilometres outside Labrador City. Residents were provided with alternate phone numbers to report emergencies.

Isabelle Robinson, a spokesperson for Bell Canada, estimated 5,500 customers were affected, mostly in the Labrador City and Wabush area. She could not provide an estimate of when service would resume.

The area did not face any imminent threat of losing power said Erin Squires, a spokesperson for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

The fire, which has consumed about 60 square kilometres since last Sunday, also prompted the closure of the Trans-Labrador Highway. A nearly 250-kilometre-long section of road remained closed Saturday between Labrador West and Churchill Falls.

Though Wabush remained under a state of emergency, the provincial government issued a news release Saturday saying the evacuation was precautionary and there was no immediate fire hazard to homes or residents.

The town’s displaced residents were said to be coping well. They were being offered food and shelter by the residents and business in Labrador City.

“There’s good spirits and we’re moving forward,” said O’Brien.

“They understand that their safety comes first, they understand as well that we have all the specialists on the ground, so we’ll attack this fire until we have it under control and put it out.”

Crews continued construction work on a fire break that would afford the town of Wabush an added measure of protection.

Canada Day festivities planned for Monday in Labrador City have been postponed.