Hydro employees slowly start return to Churchill Falls as fire's threat diminishes

This webcam photo shows what conditions look like at the Churchill Falls airport on Friday morning. (Nav Canada - image credit)
This webcam photo shows what conditions look like at the Churchill Falls airport on Friday morning. (Nav Canada - image credit)
This webcam photo shows what conditions look like at the Churchill Falls airport on Friday morning.
This webcam photo shows what conditions look like at the Churchill Falls airport on Friday morning.

This webcam photo shows what conditions look like at the Churchill Falls airport on Friday morning. (Nav Canada)

As rainy and humid weather take a favourable turn in fighting raging forest fires threatening Churchill Falls, a Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro crew has been able to return to the plant.

"We are turning our attention to planning and preparing for residents to return to the community," Hydro said in a statement posted on its website early Thursday evening.

About 750 people were ordered on June 19 to flee Churchill Falls, a company town that exists to keep Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro's generating station running.

The remaining skeleton staff were forced to leave this Tuesday, after a raging forest fire jumped the Churchill River and moved closer to the town and its power plant.

Hydro's evacuation order remains in effect, but plans are underway for when people could return, the Hydro statement said.

Wildfire smoke has compromised air quality in parts of Labrador, well beyond the boundaries of Churchill Falls. In a statement Friday, the Department of Fisheries, Forestry, and Agriculture asked residents in western and central Labrador to take precautions to protect their health from the smoke.

Officials made recommendations that including keeping their windows and doors closed, staying cool, and turning off or using recirculating settings on HVAC system to prevent smoke from entering homes.

People who are pregnant, young children, older adults aged 65 and over, people who have underlying medical conditions, and people who physically exert themselves outside for work or sports are at higher risk of experiencing health effects, the satement said.

Small team being sent into town

Hydro also announced it was sending a small team of critical personnel to Churchill Falls in order to look at health and safety factors, as well as to begin the initial preparations for more people to return.

"We will know more once they have had a chance to assess and we will continue to provide updates on next steps as available."

The Crown corporation added it is working with provincial government officials to get back to the town.

"The fire has not reached your homes, the town buildings or infrastructure," it read, adding the fire is within three to four kilometres from the town.

The fire ban that's been in place across Newfoundland for more than a week has been lifted but is still in place in parts of Labrador.

"Significant firefighting resources have recently been dedicated to wildfire suppression impacting the community of Churchill Falls," the Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture said in a statement Friday morning.

"The outdoor fire ban will continue to help reduce the wildfire risk in Labrador and support the efforts of wildfire suppression teams actioning active fires."

In Labrador, setting fires in the forest or within 300 metres of forest is still prohibited.

Provincial forest fire duty officer Laurie Holloway said Friday morning that the fire closest to Churchill Falls was still approximately four kilometres from the town as of Thursday evening, and was smouldering. It remains at a classification of Level 1, which is the lowest risk of a fire that has not yet been controlled.

"We have a lot of work to do on site on that fire and we hope to get, or we are getting, crews in there today," Holloway told Labrador Morning.

She said Hydro is also allowing them to bring more people into Churchill Falls in order "to start into this heavy work on the fire area."

Environment Canada meteorologist Robert Grove said Friday that Churchill Falls is going to get a mix of sun and cloud on Friday, with temperatures rising to the mid-teens. Temperatures will drop at night.

"Tomorrow they're going to get some showers. Not too too much, but still, we'll take anything we can get," Grove told CBC News.

He added Sunday will get more rain and throughout early next week it will be sunny and warm. "Hopefully that rain will be enough to get them to do a good job keeping that fire down," he said.

Holloway said Friday's forecast should help firefighting efforts because visibility will be good. Crews should be able to use water bombers, which had been grounded for two days due to poor visibility because of either smoke or rain.

According to Newfoundland and Labrador's wildfire dashboard, there are nine fires burning in Labrador on Friday morning — down from Thursday morning's count.

Holloway said the Twin Falls fire is being held and is 17 kilometres from the town, maintaining its status over the last number of days. The forestry department does not expect it to grow.

Holloway said there are seven other fires burning in Labrador but she said they are in remote areas and are being monitored.

Changing situation

Over the last number of days, the situation around Churchill Falls has varied, at times dramatically.

On Tuesday, the fire had jumped the Churchill River — which had been acting as a natural barrier keeping the flames from reaching the town — and prompted an order for the final workers to leave.

Recent rainfall, humidity and lower temperatures contributed in dramatically reducing the threat that an out-of-control forest fire in central Labrador has posed to one of North America's largest power plants.

On Wednesday night, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that Wednesday's weather had a positive impact in efforts to fight the fire and it was now a Level 1 fire.

It's a significant drop from the Level 5 and Level 6 categories from earlier this week, when managers fully evacuated the Upper Churchill hydroelectric power plant.

Download our free CBC News app to sign up for push alerts for CBC Newfoundland and Labrador. Click here to visit our landing page