Rain in forecast as forest fire rages near evacuated Churchill Falls power plant

On Tuesday an evacuation order was issued for Churchill Falls for all essential workers to leave as the fire previously contained by the Churchill River jumped the water.
On Tuesday an evacuation order was issued for Churchill Falls for all essential workers to leave as the fire previously contained by the Churchill River jumped the water. (Government of Newfoundland and Labrador)

While a forest fire continues to threaten Churchill Falls, so far it has yet to reach the central Labrador town built around one of North America's largest power plants.

The out-of-control fire jumped the nearby Churchill River on Tuesday afternoon, and for the first time started devouring woods on the outskirts of the town, which Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro runs to keep the plant going.

Officials are hoping for a reprieve in the weather Wednesday, which has a slight rainfall in the forecast.

After a broad evacuation last Wednesday night, a full evacuation order was issued Tuesday afternoon, forcing the remaining skeleton staff to leave for safety.

As of Tuesday, the fire remained about seven kilometres from the town.

Between 80 and 100 people had been operating the plant and handling operations and site services, fire services and clearing work for a fire break that has been under construction.

"Forest officials continue to monitor fire conditions and has advised that as of this evening town structures have not been impacted," Hydro's website says in its most recent statement.

All personnel had been evacuated as of 6:15 p.m. NT.

The Hydro statement, posted at 10:54 p.m., said the plant is online but at a reduced load.

The plant is being monitored remotely by other Hydro staff.

The fire caused power outages in both Labrador City and Wabush, two adjacent mining towns in western Labrador, as flames and dropped water tripped power lines at Churchill Falls.

While power was restored to most of Labrador City, "customers in Wabush will unfortunately remain without power as we continue to develop plans to restore the system as well as source alternate supply," said the statement.

It added if the Churchill Fall supply is impacted, Labrador east customers will get power from either Muskrat Falls or the Happy Valley-Goose Bay gas turbine.

On Tuesday the fire also closed the Trans-Labrador Highway from Labrador City and Wabush to Churchill Falls.

Rain in forecast

Meteorologist Allison Sheppard said there is rain coming from Churchill Falls that's supposed to start later Wednesday morning and could drop between 10 and 15 millimetres. There has also been a change in wind direction and cooling temperatures in the evening.

Sheppard added it's probably not as much as people are hoping for.

"But definitely some changing conditions that hopefully will improve things in the area," she told CBC News.

More rain is also in the forecast but it could be some time before there is an extended period of heavy rain.

"We're certainly keeping our eyes on that area," she said.

Power plant preparing

At Tuesday's conference, Hydro CEO Jennifer Williams also said workers had been preparing for a scenario of a full evacuation.

On Monday night, Hydro had begun releasing water at its Churchill Falls power plant in case the Crown corporation needed to remove even more staff from an evacuated community already under serious fire threat.

According to the Newfoundland and Labrador government's active fire dashboard, there were nine active fires in Labrador on Wednesday morning.

A fire previously burning on Newfoundland's east coast has now been extinguished.

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