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Residents of Halifax and Shelburne County are nervous as wildfire anniversaries approach

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It's been nearly a year since Samantha Brannen fled her home in Clyde River, New York, as it was shrouded in thick smoke and ash rained from the sky.

Brannen was unable to return for two weeks as a forest fire raged through Shelburne County in southwestern Nova Scotia.

Now the memories are coming back.

“I can feel it,” Brannen said. “Every time I look out and see fog, I think: Is that smoke?”

As the anniversaries of the wildfires in Shelburne and Halifax counties approach, a sense of anxiety is spreading throughout communities.

WATCH HERE: This is how Nova Scotia residents affected by the fires feel one year later

The Shelburne County wildfire, which began on May 26, destroyed about 60 homes, spread to 23,525 acres, and forced about half the region's population to flee their homes.

A year later, Brannen is happy that her home was saved and is in a good place, but she also has understanding for others who are going through a harder time.

Sherry Doane, a volunteer firefighter in Shelburne, said it was clear many were under pressure.

“People are afraid that something like this will happen again, and I know that worry is exhausting them,” said Doane, who helped fight the fire last year.

Sherry Doane is pictured on the left in the back row alongside other Shelburne volunteer firefighters at the Birchtown Community Center last June.Sherry Doane is pictured on the left in the back row alongside other Shelburne volunteer firefighters at the Birchtown Community Center last June.

Sherry Doane is pictured on the left in the back row alongside other Shelburne volunteer firefighters at the Birchtown Community Center last June.

Sherry Doane is pictured in the back row, left, with other Shelburne volunteer firefighters at the community center in Birchtown, NS, last June. (Penny Smith)

Doane has already been involved in the fire department's response to a number of small fires this season that were quickly extinguished. There have also been a number of false alarms, which shows that people are constantly on guard.

“Everyone is very worried,” she said, adding that it was also reassuring that people were closely monitoring the situation.

Tensions have also been rife in Upper Tantallon and Hammonds Plains over the past year after 151 homes were destroyed and more than 16,000 people were evacuated from the suburbs west of downtown Halifax.

This wildfire broke out just days after the one in Shelburne County, and both fires raged for two months, officially being declared extinguished in late July.

“When we hear a siren in Westwood Hills, everyone pays attention,” said Dustin O'Leary, president of the neighborhood's residents' association. “People on social media within the neighborhood are asking, 'What was that? Is everyone OK?'”

Westwood Hills is the community where the fire started on May 28 last year and then quickly spread through the forests to Hammonds Plains, where it caused great devastation.

Dustin O'Leary said about 30 homes were destroyed in Westwood Hills and people remained concerned about the risk of wildfires.Dustin O'Leary said about 30 homes were destroyed in Westwood Hills and people remained concerned about the risk of wildfires.

Dustin O'Leary said about 30 homes were destroyed in Westwood Hills and people remained concerned about the risk of wildfires.

Dustin O'Leary says about 30 homes have been destroyed in Westwood Hills and people remain concerned about the risk of wildfires. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

O'Leary and others have since been pushing for a new emergency exit, as Westwood Hills has only one entrance and exit to the residential area.

Some had endured “terrible times” trying to leave the community as evacuation orders were issued and the fire spread, he said.

Immediately after the wildfire, the Halifax Regional Municipality built two emergency roads from neighboring Haliburton Hills and Highland Park.

The council has instructed its staff to plan and design an emergency connection from Westwood Hills to Highway 103. Possible escape options and recommendations will be presented to the council by the fall.

However, O'Leary doesn't think it's happening fast enough.

“We are still no better off than the day it happened, and the fear it is causing in everyone is palpable,” he said.

Free tool offers mental health support

According to Nova Scotia Health's Central Zone Chief Psychiatrist, concern is to be expected around the anniversaries.

“Activities associated with the traumatic event, such as sirens or people seeing bushfires, may trigger memories,” said Dr Vincent Agyapong. “This may increase their fear.”

Agyapong had to leave his home in Fort McMurray for six weeks while living in the northern Alberta city that was hit by a massive wildfire in 2016.

He was behind the launch of a text messaging program to provide mental health support to people back then and helped launch the same service after the Nova Scotia wildfires.

About 250 people signed up in the early stages last year to receive supportive messages with links to other resources, he said.

The service will remain in place and studies show that it has positive effects, Agyapong said.

People seeking support can text “HopeNS” to 393939.

Dr. Vincent Agyapong said it was a traumatic experience when he and his family were forced to leave their Fort McMurray home for six weeks in 2016. His home was damaged by the smoke, but thousands of others were destroyed.Dr. Vincent Agyapong said it was a traumatic experience when he and his family were forced to leave their Fort McMurray home for six weeks in 2016. His home was damaged by the smoke, but thousands of others were destroyed.

Dr. Vincent Agyapong said it was a traumatic experience when he and his family were forced to leave their Fort McMurray home for six weeks in 2016. His home was damaged by the smoke, but thousands of others were destroyed.

Dr. Vincent Agyapong said it was a traumatic experience when he and his family were forced to leave their Fort McMurray home for six weeks in 2016. His home was damaged by smoke, but thousands of others were destroyed. (Robert Short/CBC)

For those suffering from stress, help from family and friends is also important, he said.

“As the anniversary approaches, it would be wise to reach out to them, give them hope and provide them with all the support we can.”

Back in Clyde River, Brannen said that while it will be a difficult time for many, there is also a lot of positive.

The fighting spirit of that time has remained, she said, and mutual support is helping people through this difficult time.

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