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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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