I’m not fond of hypothetical situations.
I don’t read a lot of the articles foisted on me from the depths of social media and the internet, because they deal with generalities, half-truths, speculation and, frequently, outlandish doomsday scenarios.
But right now I find myself pondering the what-ifs.
I’m writing this the day after a four-hour struggle between volunteer firefighters and a blaze that broke out at the Port Hawkesbury Paper (PHP) operation in Point Tupper. (Fair warning: I’m going to use the words “fire” and “blaze” a lot in this column, because there aren’t many more synonyms for such an activity other than “conflagration,” which a grand total of zero people are using right now to describe last week’s events.)
Firefighters were called to the scene just before 8 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, June 20. They came from five different departments, including Louisdale, as well as Port Hawkesbury, Port Hastings, West Bay Road, and the Town of Antigonish.
In one of the most astonishing coincidences I’ve witnessed since I started covering Strait area municipal councils a quarter-century ago, Richmond County councillors voted on a new fire-services arrangement for Point Tupper mere minutes after the first firefighters arrived on the scene at PHP.
As a result of that unanimous vote at the Arichat council chambers, Richmond will spend roughly $46,000 as part of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Port Hawkesbury to share the costs of providing fire protection services to Point Tupper, beginning next week and running until the following July.
Regardless of the outcome of the PHP silo fire, the news of common ground between the two sides on this issue is great news. It hasn’t always been so rosy.
Nearly two decades ago, Port Hawkesbury officials in attendance at the Union of Nova Scotia Municipalities (UNSM) spring conference handed out buttons with the town logo underneath the slogan: “Port Hawkesbury Says Love Is Municipal Sharing.” The pins were a thinly veiled swipe at Richmond County and its hesitance to open the dialogue on providing more financial assistance and other cooperation with regards to the contentious area of Point Tupper fire and police protection.
Inspired, The Reporter’s editorial cartoonist at the time, whose name currently escapes me, responded to the “Love Is Municipal Sharing” buttons by caricaturing then-Mayor Billy Joe MacLean as Barney the Dinosaur.
But it’s all fun and games – and buttons and slogans and cartoons – until a real fire breaks out and a genuine threat to an industrial workforce and the surrounding community is suddenly thrown into our midst.
According to Port Hawkesbury Fire Chief Curtis Doucet, the entire fire was confined to a single silo unit, with “minimal” chances that it would spread to the rest of the paper mill or to the community in general.
However, Doucet also confirmed that two volunteer firefighters were hospitalized over the course of the night, although both were released on Friday, while two members of the PHP workforce were also injured on the evening of June 20.
I’m relieved that no more serious injuries or deaths resulted from an event that rattled all of us around the Strait area on the final night of spring. But it doesn’t stop me from thinking of what might have been, especially since I’m aware of what’s already been.
Serious injuries and multiple deaths resulted from an explosion at the Point Tupper mill when it was under the ownership of Nova Scotia Forest Industries in 1982. Modernization of the operation over the following 47 years has greatly reduced the likelihood of a similar event taking place. But the sound of sirens that flooded Point Tupper, Port Hawkesbury and nearby communities on June 20 has us all looking over our shoulders, all over again.
Last week’s fire took place in a wood chip silo. One of the most prominent uses of wood chips at the PHP site is at the biomass co-generation facility Nova Scotia Power Incorporated (NSPI) has run at the Point Tupper mill since 2013. My sense is that it’s been smooth sailing during those six years, but moments like those we experienced last Thursday get the what-ifs going again.
I’m not writing any of this to be alarmist or fatalistic. PHP runs a solid, secure operation, and I put my trust in the company, its employees, our municipal leaders and our hardworking volunteer firefighters to protect both the workers and the community if the worst should happen.
I just hope – as I imagine they do, as well – that none of them will ever get the opportunity to prove me right.