As Port Coquitlam firefighters battled a raging ethanol-fueled fire in Canadian Pacific Railway yards Monday night, they were trying to keep a bad scene from getting worse.
Tanker cars filled with jet fuel were just 50 metres away.
“It’s tense,” said Port Coquitlam Fire Chief Nick Delmonico.
He didn’t know how many of the six to eight cars were carrying the jet fuel, but asked for them all to be moved away.
“CP did a really good job of moving those cars at our request,” he said.
“So if that [fire] gets bigger, that can pose a real problem if it gets into nastier stuff.”
The fire started after a double-tanker B-train transport truck collided with a locomotive in the yard near the Lougheed Highway entrance. Both the truck driver and train engineer escaped injury.
Being an alcohol-based fire, it burned smoothly. But if if spread, it could have involved more hazardous materials.
Complicating the response was small building nearby containing 50-kilogram propane tanks and acetylene torches.
“A couple of those exploded while we were trying to fight the fire, which was a tiny bit unnerving because we couldn’t find out what was in that shed. We had a lot of things going on,” Delmonico said.
In the past few years, the federal government has required railways to provide cities lists and amounts of dangerous goods that have moved through their community each year. That gives emergency crews an idea of what to prepare for.
“We don’t know at any one point what’s in the yard, we just know the general array of chemicals and products coming through the yard,” Delmonico said.
Just as challenging was coordinating the efforts of several agencies responding to the fire. CP Rail crews were on scene first and set up their own command post. That was later combined with the fire deparment’s so there was only one command post.
The efforts of multiple agencies had to be coordinated, including the City of Port Coquitlam, RCMP, emergency social services, firefighters, CP Police and the media.
About 300 residents within the hot zone of the fire also had to be evacuated.
“Organization and communication is always the biggest issue at a large incident,” said Delmonico.
“Things need to run smoothly.”
Pre-planning helps, as well as joint training exercises.
The Port Coquitlam fire department and CP regularly plan and practise response to emergencies.
“There was a good crowd of [CP] guys. They were very quick to respond.”
CP has a support trailer stationed in the yard, staffed by a hazmat crew that can supply foam in such incidents.
And because the media were excluded from the hot zone and had to cover the fire from a distance, Delmonico had to make regular trips to a parking lot to update reporters.
“We try really hard to work with the media,” he said.
In the age of social media, if people don’t get information fast, they start complaining online.
Five Port Coquitlam fire trucks responded, along with 30 firefighters. Crews were on scene from about 6:40 p.m Monday night until early Tuesday.
“We didn’t actually put the fire out until 3 a.m. We had to let it burn out. There was too much fuel there.”
Pitt Meadows assistant fire chief Brad Perrie pointed out that most of the rail activity on CP’s lines in Pitt Meadows consists of intermodal or container freight, instead of fuel and tankers.
Maple Ridge Fire and Rescue chief Howard Exner said there have been train-truck collisions in Maple Ridge, but they are rare, with decades separating them.
And, he added, that transportation of hazardous or flammable materials makes up a small percentage of the freight compared to consumer goods and other materials that move by rail through the city.
“There is undoubtedly fuel and diesel and gasoline that does move through, but not a huge amount when you [compare] that to the train traffic.”
Pipelines carry most of the liquid fuels, he added.
“I think we’re quite well served here and it’s proven to be quite safe over the years,” Exner said.
CP Rail said an investigation is ongoing and no further details were available.
CP Rail and other agencies recently proposed constructing an underpass at Harris Road and two overpasses along the tracks in Pitt Meadows to improve the flow of goods.
A town hall meeting to discuss the projects is to take place in March.