Officials in Canada’s easternmost province have declared a state of emergency as crews battle the worst wildfires the region has seen in more than half a century.
Sprawling fires have consumed thousands of hectares of forest in Newfoundland and Labrador over the past two weeks and remain out of control.
“In the last 36 hours things have changed,” Prime Minister Andrew Furey told reporters on Sunday. “We predicted that we could handle this. However, with the change in the wind we are concerned that there will be a significant impact from the smoke… It is a dynamic and evolving situation like all fires, but we cannot wait until the last minute – we must act now.
Furey said his government declared a state of emergency “not to create panic” but to ensure the province was able to better manage the rapidly changing situation.
Fires have been burning for nearly two weeks in central Newfoundland, helped by high winds. The Paradise Lake fire is estimated at over 6,500 hectares (16,062 acres) and the Bay d’Espoir fire at over 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres).
Large forest fires are relatively rare in the Atlantic Province. But a summer of dry and intense heat left its forests vulnerable to huge and fast-moving fires.
Craig Coady, incident commander for the Department of Natural Resources, told reporters that crews had witnessed “extreme fire behavior” in recent days, which had officials concerned.
“We expect this to continue for today and possibly for the next few days. This is due to high winds and low humidity.
Coady said heavy smoke was complicating firefighting efforts.
“If the [water] the bombers can’t see in front of the fire and there’s too much smoke, it’s not safe for them to operate,” he said, adding that the poor air quality was also the biggest problem for nearby residents.
The province has not yet ordered an evacuation, but authorities said they are prepared to order residents to leave any at-risk communities. Canadian military personnel would be deployed to assist with evacuation efforts, federal Emergency Preparedness Minister Bill Blair tweeted on Sunday.
The province has also expanded its outdoor fire ban, which now prohibits starting fires on or within 300 meters of forest land. This decision is necessary to help reduce the likelihood of new fires being created by accident or negligence.
“Last night I saw two people throwing cigarette butts and I thought it was crazy,” Derrick Bragg, Minister of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, told reporters. “It’s reckless and we don’t need it.”