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Collaboration and Community

Posted: July 10, 2024

Forest fire brings together teams from across province to protect residents and the community of Churchill Falls

Churchill Falls is home to approximately 650 residents who live and work in the small Labrador community to support one of the largest underground hydro facilities in the world, which is operated by Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

Ariel view of the Town of Churchill Falls showing the community was virtually untouched by the forest fire that burned just a few kilometres away. Photo taken by Dave Saunders, provincial health emergency and continuity management coordinator.

To support the health and well-being of residents living in the community, Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) Health Services operates a community clinic which is staffed by two registered nurses, a personal care attendant, two mental health nurses and clerical support.

This past June, an active forest fire threatened the community of Churchill Falls, located between the towns of Happy Valley – Goose Bay and Labrador City. As the fire continued to creep closer to the town, on Wednesday, June 19, teams from across many sectors in the province, including NL Health Services, came together to ensure the safe evacuation of residents.

“For NL Health Services, this was one of the first provincially run emergency operations centres, which included members of the provincial integrated protection services team, Labrador-Grenfell Zone senior leadership, as well as support from human resources and occupational health and safety,” says Joe Sobol, senior director, Provincial Integrated Protection Services with NL Health Services. “It was truly a collaborative effort to ensure the safety of our staff, those that were evacuating to nearby communities, and also those that were responding to the situation.”

Members of the Provincial Integrated Protection Services team of NL Health Services were kept updated through the provincial emergency operations centre, which included leadership from federal, provincial and municipal partners, NL Hydro, and volunteer support groups.

All teams had the same goal in mind, which was to protect the people and community by working together, according to Joe.  “Critical staff supporting the operation of NL Hydro facilities, as well as fire-fighting crews remained on site initially but eventually evacuated on June 25 due to unfavourable weather conditions.”

Two days later, with a little help from mother nature, fire-fighting crews were able to get back to the site of the forest fire to make an assessment. Other critical personnel also returned to the community of Churchill Falls to determine what impacts the fire had on the community.

Dave Saunders, provincial health emergency and continuity management coordinator with the Provincial Integrated Protection Services team – NL Health Services, was one of the first team members to arrive in Churchill Falls. He was joined by two registered nurses from the Churchill Falls Community Clinic who were there to provide support in the event of a medical emergency.

“I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I arrived as I had never been to Labrador before, and I was entering into a serious situation that had impacted a close-knit community,” says Dave. “However, after just a few minutes, I was completely reassured by everyone that was managing the situation. Spirits were high and everyone was there to do whatever they needed to ensure the safe return of residents when the time was right.”

Members of the emergency operations centre gathered in Churchill Falls, including NL Health Services, NL Hydro, Town of Churchill Falls and Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

“There was a lot of day-to-day uncertainty, a lot of waiting, and sometimes that was the hardest part,” says Cindy Leslie, registered nurse at NL Health Services’ Churchill Falls Community Clinic. “We are very thankful for the way NL Hydro responded to the fire and organized the evacuation. We are thankful for all the crews and workers who came to help. As nurses, we are also thankful to have been part of the response once the situation started to improve and we were able to continue supporting the health and safety of residents in Churchill Falls.”

On Wednesday, July 3, after consultation with the Department of Forestry and Agriculture and, following NL Hydro’s assessment of health and safety considerations, an announcement was made that the evacuation notice was officially lifted. Residents began returning home and the Churchill Falls Community Clinic returned to normal operations effective Friday, July 5, 2024.

“We want to extend a sincere thanks to our staff from Churchill Falls, especially those who returned to the community early to provide support,” says Wanda Slade, senior director for facility and support services in NL Health Services’ Labrador-Grenfell Zone. “We also want to thank staff at our other sites in Happy Valley – Goose Bay and Labrador West who were available to provide support as needed throughout the evacuation.”

Staff at NL Health Services will continue to work with our valued partners to provide safe, quality care for the residents of Churchill Falls.

L-R: Philip Reynolds, registered nurse, Cindy Leslie, registered nurse, and Dave Saunders, provincial health emergency and continuity management coordinator.

Ongoing support available

NL Health Services recognizes this has been a difficult time for residents of Churchill Falls and advises the following resources are available:

  • Additional Mental Health and Addictions staff will be on site as needed at the Churchill Falls Community Clinic to provide support.
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