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Nova Scotia wildfire forces 16,000 to evacuate, prompts air quality alerts along U.S. East Coast

A wildfire on Canada's Atlantic coast has damaged about 200 houses and other structures and prompted the evacuation of 16,000 people, many of whom were eager to return Tuesday to see whether homes and pets had survived.

Firefighters worked through the night to extinguish hotspots in the fire that started in the Halifax area on Sunday, Halifax Deputy Fire Chief David Meldrum said. He said it was too early to give an exact count of homes destroyed, but the municipal government put the toll at about 200 buildings.

"I cannot keep up with posting calls, a substantial amount of fires are being reported in different parts in Nova Scotia. I am trying my best to keep up with important updates, however some may be missed," Firefighters of Nova Scotia wrote Tuesday afternoon on Facebook

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston announced the province would be banning all travel and activity in all wooded areas as of 4 p.m. local time. The ban applies to all forestry, mining, hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, off-road vehicle driving and all commercial activity on government lands.

"We're in a very serious situation in this province, and we need to take the steps that we can to protect Nova Scotia," he told a news conference via a video call from Shelburne, Nova Scotia, where the province's largest wildfire has been burning since the weekend.

"I wanted to get a sense of the damage here," the premier said. "It's extensive. It's heartbreaking."

Smoke from Canadian wildfires have been impacting air quality in the United States for weeks. 

The fires in Nova Scotia, which is located northeast of Maine, prompted air quality concerns as far as south along the U.S. East Coast as New Jersey, Delaware and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday. Alerts were also issued for most of Massachusetts, where residents could see a smoke-induced brownish tinge in the sky.

Early last week, the National Weather Service attributed the "very red sun" rising over New York City to wildfires in Canada. 

On May 19, fires in Alberta, closer to Canada's western coast, prompted air quality alerts in several western and midwestern American states, including Nebraska, Washington, Montana and Wisconsin, with a special weather statement issued about air quality in Wyoming.

"There's about 212 fires burning currently in the country, of which 58 of these are out of control," Chris Stockdale, a wildland fire research officer with the Canadian Forest Service, told CBS News at the time about western Canada's fires. 

"We're now mobilizing international support as well," Stockdale said, noting that support was arriving from New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. 

"Amongst [the] evacuees are numerous First Nations communities," Stockdale said, adding, "It's a pretty extreme situation."

Dan Cavanaugh was among two dozen people waiting Tuesday in a Halifax-area parking lot to learn if their suburban homes had been consumed by the wildfire.

"We're like everyone else in this lot," said the 48-year-old insurance adjuster. "We're not sure if we have a house to go back to or the extent of the damages."

Police officers were writing down the names of residents and calling people to be escorted to see what had become of their properties.

Sarah Lyon of the Nova Scotia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said an eight-member team was preparing to head out into the evacuation zone to retrieve animals left behind.

In all, about 16,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes northwest of Halifax, most of which are within a 30-minute drive of the port city's downtown. The area under mandatory evacuation orders covers about 100 square kilometers (38 miles).

Smoke from the Tantallon wildfire rises over houses in nearby Bedford, Nova Scotia, Canada, May 28, 2023.
Smoke from the Tantallon wildfire rises over houses in nearby Bedford, Nova Scotia, Canada, May 28, 2023. ERIC MARTYN / REUTERS

Sonya Higgins said she and more than 40 others waited in a nearby supermarket parking lot to be led into the evacuation area, in hopes of retrieving seven cats from two homes.

Higgins runs a cat rescue operation in Halifax, and she says the pet owners contacting her are "frantic" to find their animals and get them to a safe place.

Earlier in the day, fire officials said that with the return of dry, windy conditions on Tuesday, there could be a "reburn" in the evacuated subdivisions.

The extended forecast is calling for hotter weather on Wednesday and no rain until Friday at the earliest.

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