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Wildfire in Labrador jumps Churchill River, hydro generating station evacuated

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CHURCHILL FALLS, N.L. – The Labrador wildfire threatening the town of Churchill Falls jumped the Churchill River on Tuesday, prompting the emergency evacuation of the hydroelectric generating station about seven kilometres away.

The river had acted as a natural fire break since the wildfire’s rapid spread on June 19 led officials to order the evacuation of most of the company town’s 750 residents and workers.

But a skeleton crew was kept on at the massive station, which supplies electricity to Labrador and Quebec.

“From Day 1, we hoped and prayed the fire would stay on the correct side of the river,” Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey told a news conference in St. John’s.

“It’s what we were all hoping wouldn’t happen …. There’s a heightened level of risk of fire propagation on the community side of the river.”

The fire started on June 13 and has since grown to 15 square kilometres.

Furey said that as of Tuesday, the intensity of the fire was rated at Category 4. He said if it grows to become a Category 5 or Category 6 fire, the larger flames will make it impossible for waterbombers to operate. Six of the aircraft are now fighting the fire. Officials say there is no rain in the forecast before Thursday.

A spokesperson for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro confirmed that everyone in and around the generating plant — estimated at 100 employees, contractors and fire officials — was ordered to leave Tuesday.

Jennifer Williams, president of the Crown corporation, told the news conference that the plan is to operate the station remotely from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a three-hour drive to the east.

She said the plant, which started delivering commercial power in 1971, wasn’t designed to be operated remotely.

“But our teams were able to implement limited monitoring and some remote operation in the last number of days …. I want to be really clear that it’s not the same as having a control centre …. It is very limited operation,” Williams said.

She said the power being produced by the generating station has been reduced as a safety measure, but the lower output was not having an impact on customers.

“It can run for a period of time as long as there is no other disturbances that would cause the plant to shift,” she said.

At peak operating levels, the plant can churn out 5,400 megawatts of electricity. As of Tuesday, it was generating 900 megawatts for Quebec and “several hundred megawatts” to supply all of Labrador.

Williams said Quebec typically draws about 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts at this time of year.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the fire caused problems in two transmission lines, knocking out power for residents and two iron-ore mines in the Labrador West area, which includes the communities of Labrador City and Wabush. Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro said the fire made it impossible to restore the lines from Churchill Falls.

“However, we have arranged supply from Fermont, Que., through Hydro-Québec,” the utility said on its website. “This supply may not be adequate for all our residential customers, hence there might be a need for rotating power outages. Unfortunately, our industrial customers will have to continue experiencing the outage.”

Caroline Des Rosiers, a spokesperson for Hydro-Québec, said about 15 per cent of Quebec’s electricity comes from Churchill Falls. She said the provincial grid won’t suffer much if the fire affects the dam because peak demand in the summer is about half what it is in the winter.

“We are collaborating with authorities in both provinces and are keeping a close watch on the situation,” Des Rosiers said in an email Tuesday evening. “We are working with our partners to evaluate how Hydro-Québec can support NLH in restoring power to certain installations in Labrador if needed.”

Meanwhile, Williams confirmed that until the evacuation of the plant was ordered, construction crews were in the process of creating a fire break between the town and the fire that was expected to stretch between eight and 10 kilometres along the town’s western flank.

She said the first phase of that project was cutting vegetation, but only 20 per cent of that task had been completed by Tuesday.

About 60 industrial sprinklers have been kept operating at the edge of town in a bid to keep the fire at bay.

When construction of the dam and turbines started in 1967, the Churchill Falls station was the largest civil engineering project in North America, and the plans called for construction of the world’s largest underground power station.

Today, the plant is the 16th largest in the world and the second largest in Canada. Its reservoir is 64 kilometres long.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2024.

— By Michael MacDonald in Halifax with files from Sarah Smellie in St. John’s, N.L., Cassidy McMackon in Halifax and Maura Forrest in Montreal

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LCBO stores reopen across Ontario after two-week strike by workers

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TORONTO – Hundreds of Ontario’s liquor stores reopened Tuesday following a strike that lasted more than two weeks, but the fighting between the union representing workers and the government dragged on.

About 10,000 Liquor Control Board of Ontario workers had returned Monday to prepare for the opening of nearly 700 stores after they walked off the job on July 5.

The Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents LCBO workers, had said the labour dispute was largely about Premier Doug Ford’s plan to allow convenience and grocery stores to sell ready-to-drink cocktails. The expanded sales, it said, was an existential threat to the workers’ future.

The sniping continued Tuesday as the union took umbrage with Ford’s comments from Monday, when he said the strike should never have happened.

The union said it made “significant gains” as a direct result of the strike.

“LCBO workers are proud of what they achieved in this contract, which wouldn’t have been possible without the strike,” said Colleen MacLeod, chair of the union’s LCBO bargaining unit. “They’re also happy to get back to work serving their communities again.”

The three-year deal, which the LCBO workers ratified over the weekend, sees an eight per cent wage increase over three years, the conversion of about 1,000 casual employees to permanent part-time positions and no store closures over the course of the agreement.

The union said converting those casual positions into 1,000 permanent part-time jobs and the guarantee of no closures for the duration of the contract was not on the table before the strike.

As part of the reopening, the LCBO said there will no longer be limits placed on online orders, but those orders could take up to three weeks for delivery.

Outside one LCBO in Toronto’s west end, Jay Brafman lambasted both sides for the strike.

“I think (the union) basically held hostage Ontarians and that’s not the right way to get more out of your job,” he said.

Brafman, a fan of the government’s plan to expand alcohol sales into convenience stores, also criticized Ford.

“If he really wanted to show some courage, he would have liquidated the LCBO,” he said.

Brafman, a vodka drinker, was put out during the strike as the LCBO is the main seller of spirits across the province.

“It cost me a ton of money having to go out to bars if I wanted to drink,” he said, adding that he’s happy the stores are open again.

Ford’s previous plan was to get beer, wine and ready-to-drink cocktails in convenience stores and all grocery stores by 2026, completing a 2018 election campaign promise. But in May he announced that would instead happen this year, capping speculation of an early election that Ford did not outright deny.

Convenience stores will be allowed to sell beer, wine and coolers starting Sept. 5 while newly licensed grocery stores can do so starting Oct. 31.

An “early implementation agreement” with The Beer Store involves the province paying the company up to $225 million to help it keep stores open and workers employed. The province is also giving brewers a rebate on an LCBO fee that normally brings in $45 million a year, and it is giving retailers a 10 per cent wholesale discount.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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Latest facts about British Columbia’s wildfire situation on July 23

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These are the facts about British Columbia’s wildfire situation, according to the BC Wildfire Service dashboard at 11.30 a.m. Tuesday.

Active fires: 380

Wildfires of note: Four. Shetland Creek fire, Kamloops Fire Centre; Antler Creek fire, Cariboo Fire Centre; Aylwin Creek fire, Southeast Fire Centre; Komonko Creek fire, Southeast Fire Centre.

Fires started in last 24 hours: 78

Out-of-control fires: 228

Active fire causes: Lightning 81 per cent, human 7 per cent, undetermined 12 per cent (percentages are rounded)

Firefighting staff deployed: 1,041

Aircraft deployed: 183

Area burned since April 1: 7,534 square kilometres (recalculated by BC Wildfire Service)

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2024.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

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Jasper evacuees forced into B.C. to flee fires told to make U-turn to Alberta for aid

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EDMONTON – Thousands of wildfire evacuees forced from Jasper National Park into British Columbia along smoke-choked mountain roads Monday night were directed Tuesday to make a wide U-turn and head home if they needed a place to stay.

Alberta fire officials said B.C. has its hands full with its own wildfires and evacuations.

“The issue is the severity of wildfire activity and evacuations in B.C. proper,” Stephen Lacroix, managing director of the Alberta Emergency Management Agency, told reporters during a video conference.

“They had no capacity to house Albertans.”

Alberta Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis said reception centres were being set up in Grande Prairie to the north and Calgary to the south.

Ellis told evacuees to take massive detours, either through Prince George, B.C., proceeding north and east to Grande Prairie, or south to Kamloops before going east to Calgary.

“One fire is approximately 12 kilometres south of Jasper on both sides of the (Athabasca) River and wind may exacerbate the situation,” Ellis told reporters.

“It’s a challenging time for all impacted.”

Everyone in Jasper National Park — tourists, hikers, campers, boaters — along with 4,700 residents of the Jasper townsite were ordered out late Monday night as wildfires pinched off escape routes to the east and south.

The result was a long, slow-moving line of cars and trucks heading west through the mountains to B.C. in darkness, swirling smoke, soot and ash.

Many evacuees sought refuge for the night in Valemount, B.C., a town of 1,000 about 120 kilometres west of Jasper.

“The community’s pretty full,” said town administrator Anne Yanciw in an interview Tuesday morning.

“Every parking lot, boulevard, side of the road, field … anything that looks like it could fit a vehicle is full.”

Some evacuees spent the night on the floor of the local arena. Others bunked down at the Legion. A local church was serving a pancake breakfast while drinks, snacks, information and a respite were on offer at Valemount’s community hall and visitors’ centre.

“It’s all hands on deck,” Yanciw said.

She said most travellers were beginning to make their way down the smoky road — slowly, but without incident.

“The hope is that most of them will find the long way back to Alberta,” Yanciw said.

Fire officials said forecast windy conditions were expected to make Tuesday a challenging day for crews.

The province has been baking and sweltering for days in 30 C-plus temperatures.

The province reported 170 wildfires burning across Alberta, 56 of which were out of control.

There was a provincewide fire ban in the forest protection area.

The province estimated 17,500 Albertans were out of their homes from the Jasper fire as well as those threatening remote northern communities.

On Monday night, photos and video shared on social media illuminated a midnight cavalcade of bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks, headlights on, red tail lights glowing, cars inching, stopping, starting, crawling through swirling tendrils of acrid smoke toward B.C.

“It’s wall-to-wall traffic,” said Edmonton resident Carolyn Campbell in a phone interview from her vehicle.

“(The smoke) is pretty thick. We’ve got masks in the car.”

Campbell said it took hours to move just seven kilometres. She said they had enough gas but worried for others who fled with little in the tank.

The Jasper townsite and the park’s main east-west artery, Highway 16, were caught in a fiery pincer. Fires threatening from the northeast cut off highway access east to Edmonton.

Another fire roaring up from the south forced the closure of the north-south Icefields Parkway. That left one route open — west to B.C.

The Municipality of Jasper and Jasper National Park said in an updated emergency alert Tuesday morning the evacuation from the townsite and the park is “progressing well” and people should continue to follow directives as the majority of traffic is being directed west on Highway 16.

“Only when roadside fire conditions permit, small groups of escorted vehicles will be directed east on Highway 16,” the town and park officials said in the alert.

Jasper National Park is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies, home to campgrounds, scenic rivers and lakes, and extensive trail networks.

In Hinton, close to the east boundary of the park, Mayor Nicholas Nissen reported only a trickle of evacuees into the community.

Nissen said the sky was blue with less smoke than Monday.

“You would almost have no indication that there’s a disaster in the community next door, just with the way Hinton is right now,” Nissen said in an interview.

“With that highway closure, we’re not seeing the volumes of people we saw during evacuations last year.”

Nissen said the town has sent eight firefighters, two fire trucks and other equipment to assist in battling the blaze.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 23, 2024.

— with files from Bob Weber in Edmonton and Jeremy Simes in Regina

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