What it was like to fight a colossal East Coast wildfire

“In my memory, we have never had an incident on this large of a scale.”
Stephanie Bai
NS Halifax Wildfire 20230601
A helicopter drops water on a hot spot at a wildfire in Tantallon, N.S. in this Thursday, June 1, 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Communications Nova Scotia *MANDATORY CREDIT*

In his eight years as a volunteer firefighter, station captain Cole Jean had never seen a blaze like this before. It started in the late afternoon of May 28 with a call to his station in Upper Tantallon, Nova Scotia, reporting a brush fire in the nearby Westwood Hills subdivision, 30 minutes from Halifax. It took seven days to control the fire, which burned across the Tantallon and Hammonds Plains communities, forcing the evacuation of over 16,000 people and laying waste to roughly 200 structures and 150 homes.

Jean was one of the first responders on the scene in Westwood Hills. For the first three days, he worked 13-to-19-hour shifts as a firefighter, sleeping as little as two hours at a time to help contain the flames and evacuate residents. On the fourth day, he came back as a paramedic—that’s his day job—to set up a rehab plan for exhausted and dehydrated firefighters (temperatures had spiked to around 36 degrees). Here, Jean revisits scenes from the front lines he will never forget: the fire that consumed his municipality, the relief assistance that poured in from all corners of Canada, and the community that endured.

Describe what happened on the day of the fire.

The call initially came in around 3:30 p.m. as a brush fire. There weren’t really any other details. My crew got into the truck, and I looked at the call notes and saw that it had changed into a structure fire. We went lights, we went sirens, and I remember coming up the hill toward the scene, where I could already see a little bit of smoke. But it was still far away and very windy. We took the final turn toward the address of the fire, and then I could finally see the full extent of what had happened. A large section of woods was already on fire. One house was completely engulfed in flames, and huge amounts of black and grey smoke filled the sky. Groups of people were congregating, people were screaming for help, people were running around. It was then we truly realized what we’d stumbled upon.

In the midst of all the chaos, what do you do next? 

We started trying to fight this fire. I deployed firefighters to grab lines, get hoses off the truck and protect the houses that we could. I ran down a private lane to figure out if there were still people where the fire had started. At the same time, I called for more resources because I knew what we had wasn’t going to be enough. In our department, when we combat a structure fire, we call it a first-alarm fire. When you increase this alarm, you start going into a second- or third- or fourth- or fifth-alarm fire, which signals the need for more resources. I kept raising the alarm until we went from first to fourth. That’s pretty unprecedented, especially in a rural setting where you don’t have large apartment buildings.

But the fire was travelling extremely fast because it’s been dry here for weeks, and it was a very windy day. It just kept going and moving and growing in size, and it was at that point I realized I needed to start evacuating homes—civilians needed to get out of there. Then I ran out to the main street and saw something I’ll never forget: the wind blew, and I watched as the fire swept right across the road and into the trees on the other side. 

How did this fire compare to what you’ve seen in previous years?

I don’t have anything to compare it to. In my memory, and in the memory of most people here, we’ve never had an incident on this large of a scale. 

What happened during the evacuation process?

Multiple RCMP officers arrived, along with assistance from Emergency Health Services, the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables and Nova Scotia Power. The RCMP team quickly started their protocol for organizing an evacuation. In the meantime, there were a couple of volunteer firefighters who were cut off from us because they were behind the flames on the road. I shouted instructions to them. Then they went up and down the street to where the fire was prevalent and started knocking on doors to tell people to grab what they could and get in their cars. 

Then the fire on the road died down a bit, and the RCMP was able to drive through it and send more people to the other side. At this point, other fire trucks arrived. I sent them over to help protect the road and the houses as we got people out of them, and the emergency management organization for Halifax Regional Municipality put out a public alert on people’s cellphones to tell everybody in the Westwood Hills subdivision to evacuate.

How long were you on the scene for? 

I was on the scene for three days as a volunteer firefighter. After the first day, I left at 4 a.m. and came back at 6:30 a.m. It looked like something out of a nightmare. At that point, there had been a mass evacuation of the nearby areas overnight. The closer you got to Tantallon, the greyer and darker it got. The plumes of smoke were so large, they almost seemed like fog, and fire engines, tanker trucks and light rescue vehicles surrounded the area. I could see the fire, which was still out of control and growing. 

What was the strategy to contain the wildfire? 

With most fires, we have a saying: you put the wet stuff on the hot stuff. But when you talk about forest fires, they’re so hot and move so fast that using water doesn’t always work. We have a mutual-aid agreement with the Department of National Defence’s fire department, so they brought out these brush trucks that spray foam onto the fire. As the days progressed, we also got heavy machinery, like bulldozers and excavators, from the Department of Natural Resources and Renewables. Those machines went into the woods and bulldozed a five-metre gap between trees to make it harder for the fire to grow. And we had aerial resources too—multiple helicopters with buckets scooping up water from the lake or the ocean and dropping it onto the fire, and a firefighting plane from Newfoundland doing the same. 

When I came back on Wednesday, I worked as an incident commander for the medical side of things until Saturday night. We helped firefighters who had blisters, but we were fortunate that we didn’t have any other medical issues to treat. We focused on preparing for Thursday, which was going to be the hardest because it was the hottest, with temperatures climbing toward 36 degrees, and a lot of wind. So we set up a whole rehab plan to help firefighters cool off and get a chance to relax before they had to go back into it again.

The wildfire wasn’t declared to be under control until June 4. How did you deal with the exhaustion after working such long hours? 

There was a lot of adrenaline. Red Bull and coffee are also great friends. But it was just that desire to be there and help that really kept me going. 

Is that desire part of the reason you became a volunteer firefighter? 

I wanted to serve and protect the community. My extended family has a history of serving in the military, and I started my career in the Canadian Coast Guard. When I left to become a paramedic, I also joined the fire department because it was a way to keep serving, and that’s something I’ve always wanted, and always loved, to do.

Our fire station has four career firefighters, who are paid and work Monday to Friday, from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For incidents during and outside of those hours, we also rely on our 24 volunteer firefighters to answer calls. We’re fortunate in Tantallon because we have a large population, so it’s easier to recruit more volunteers. But there’s still a shortage, especially in rural areas with lower populations or older populations, and if you lack volunteers, it’ll be harder to get a fire under control as fast as possible. 

It’s been almost two weeks since the wildfire broke out. What does your town look like now?

There are places that you recognize because they’re unaffected. Wildfires with wind can be very random, so there are areas where a house is standing but both its neighbours are gone. But I also remember these beautiful green trees that I used to drive by, and now they’re black, from treetop to ground. 

How has your community responded to the devastation? How have you?

There are so many people who have not been able to go home after the evacuation order, myself included. When we evacuated the area where I live in Upper Tantallon, I couldn’t go back to pack up because I was needed on the scene, so a family member grabbed a change of clothes for me. I’m staying with some family nearby, and other evacuees are living with relatives or friends, or staying in community centres and hotels, which have provided discounts or free lodging. We also have people from outside of our municipality offering evacuees places to stay. 

The support shown for each other was above and beyond anything I would have ever hoped for. I’m never going to forget the amount of camaraderie we had from firefighters who weren’t part of our province—even volunteers from P.E.I. showed up to help. The donations of food and drinks and supplies were amazing, and the thank yous from the public have not stopped. Gosh, the amount of pizzas that were donated by small businesses numbered up to 200, I think. After this event, we’re all starting to try to heal. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.