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Intense storm thwarts P.E.I. firefighters

Intense storm thwarts P.E.I. firefightersA pedestrian battles the high winds and blowing snow as he walks in downtown Halifax on Wednesday, March 26, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

NEW GLASGOW, P.E.I. - A crew of firefighters spent three hours trying to reach a burning home in central P.E.I. on Wednesday, only to be thwarted by huge drifts created by the intense blizzard that left much of Atlantic Canada paralyzed.

New Glasgow fire Chief Jason Peters said the lone occupant of the home managed to escape to her car, where she called for help from her cellphone.

Peters said the drive to the home in Cymbria would normally take about 10 minutes, but the snowplow leading the fire truck was slowed to a crawl amid howling winds, whiteout conditions and drifts that topped three metres.

"Someone walking could have probably passed us," Peters said Thursday in an interview. "That's how slow we were going. You couldn't see — and the drifts. The plow was making runs (at the drifts) and backing up."

The fire chief said the woman was eventually rescued when a plow managed to reach her from another direction, but her two-storey home was destroyed.

"We were talking to the lady on her cellphone, telling her we were trying to get there," Peters said. "It was certainly frustrating when you can't get there and you know she's in her driveway, siting in her car watching her house burn down."

Peters said only an hour after the woman called the fire department, she reported that her home was engulfed in flames.

"There was no reason for us to try to keep going so we turned around," he said. "If it had been a normal day, we might have had a chance. ... It's the worst scenario that we've ever come across, in my time anyways."

Environment Canada said the blizzard blew away snow and wind records in several Atlantic communities, including Charlottetown, where a record 53 centimetres of snow was whipped up by gusts reaching 93 kilometres per hour.

Tracey Talbot, a meteorologist with Environment Canada, said a one-day record was also set in Halifax, where 21 centimetres fell. The previous record for March 26 was 7.2 centimetres in 1997.

Another record fell in Moncton, N.B., where the 41-centimetre accumulation was more than four times higher than the prior record daily snowfall on that date.

During the storm, howling winds pulled down power lines across the region. At one point, about 16,000 Nova Scotians were in the dark Thursday morning. That number had dropped to about 1,000 by Thursday evening.

Outages also affected homes and businesses in southern New Brunswick and dozens of small communities across P.E.I.

The drifting snow forced the temporary closure of the Confederation Bridge, as well as several highways in all four provinces, including the Trans-Canada Highway between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

All schools and some government offices were closed both Wednesday and Thursday in Nova Scotia.

Gusts reached 172 km/h in parts of Cape Breton, where the Canso causeway was temporarily closed. In the Wreckhouse area of western Newfoundland, a peak gust reached an incredible 185 km/h. Talbot said those were the strongest winds in the area since 2000.

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