POLITICS

Wabush residents allowed to return home; Labrador town still under fire alert

07/01/2013 10:57 EDT | Updated 08/31/2013 05:12 EDT
WABUSH, N.L. - Crews in western Labrador are spending Canada Day continuing to fight a forest fire that forced a two-day evacuation of a mining community.

Most of the residents of Wabush are back in their homes after a voluntary evacuation notice was lifted late Sunday evening, but Mayor Ron Barron said the community remains under a state of emergency.

"There are a lot of hot spots in the area," Barron told the Canadian Press in a phone interview.

"Today is the first time they could really get a grasp on the fire because of the smoke that was in the area. You couldn't see the whole extent of it."

Barron said the province's Department of Natural Resources recommended the town remain on fire alert because of an anticipated increase in temperatures.

Nonetheless, Barron said life in the town is slowly getting back to normal.

"Overall I think most people are happy to be home."

Barron estimated about 90 per cent of the town's 1,800 residents have so far returned.

Thick smoke from the fire forced the evacuation of Wabush on Friday.

By Sunday westerly winds had blown away much of the smoke blanketing the town, allowing residents to return home.

Wabush's mayor also reported that over the past week several aircraft had entered airspace around the fire reserved for air traffic involved in battling the blaze.

"These people are working very hard on our behalf and we don't need those aircraft in those areas compounding the problem," said Barron.

A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources Eric Earle confirmed a helicopter not associated with the fire did enter restricted air space Sunday evening but was quickly removed.

"We are very, very concerned about safety," said Earle, who also serves as the province's deputy fire chief.

"We have protocol in place and part of that protocol is a no-fly zone."

He is not aware of any charges being laid.

Meanwhile, efforts on Sunday from the air to fight the fire's western flank allowed authorities to put ground crews into action on Monday in the Wabush-area.

In addition to the approximately 30 firefighters working on the ground, four helicopters and four water bombers were also involved in the entire offensive.

And despite the positive developments around Wabush, Earle said the fire remains active elsewhere.

"There was some movement in the north-east portion of the fire," said Earle.

"After (Sunday) we moved our air tankers from the western flank and we started to focus our effort up there."

Temperatures and winds in the western Labrador area are also forecast to increase over the next few days, which Earle said could be bad news for firefighters.

"Although we made progress yesterday and we're hoping to make progress today, we're cautiously optimistic," said Earle.

Barron also cautioned against considering the risk as over.

"There's still a major fire in the area and people have got to be cognizant of that," he said.

"Hopefully over the next couple of days the low threat that's there now will be a no threat."

Meanwhile, authorities have re-opened the Trans-Labrador Highway, which had been closed since last week.

Escorted traffic was allowed through beginning Sunday evening.

The fire has consumed around 700 square kilometres since it began over a week ago.