Lack of water hampered firefighters in Blackfalds

As dozens of firefighters battled a massive Canada Day chemical fire at an oilfield trucking firm they were handicapped by a lack of water.

Photo by JERRY GERLING/Advocate staff

Photo by JERRY GERLING/Advocate staff

BLACKFALDS — As dozens of firefighters battled a massive Canada Day chemical fire at an oilfield trucking firm they were handicapped by a lack of water.

Formula Powell LP is among a number of businesses in the industrial park just west of the town not connected to municipal water supplies even though the closest homes, a school and the town’s new joint RCMP and fire department building only a few hundred metres away are on town water.

Blackfalds Fire Rescue Chief Robert Cote doesn’t hesitate when asked what was the biggest challenge was of fighting the massive fire at oilfield trucking firm Formula Powell LP that sent huge plumes of toxic black smoke into the air.

“Water service was the biggest issue, and being able to find the water that was needed to fight the fire,” said Cote.

To keep firefighters supplied, water had to be hauled in by truck and kept in portable pools on site to be pumped out to the aerial and hose crews. Being able to hook at least some equipment up to hydrants would have helped.

“It would have made our jobs a lot easier,” he said.

“It’s tough to put a number on it but he estimates the fire could have been contained an hour or 90 minutes sooner with a better water supply.

“It definitely would have been quicker.”

Cote is careful to point out that hooking industrial park hydrants up to the town’s water would not necessarily solve all the challenges. Depending on the size of the fire and the number of trucks involved, they may still have to use drafting pools to provide enough water.

Asked if the department would recommend that industrial areas like this one be hooked up to water supplies during the usual review of the incident with town officials, he said, “I believe so, yes.”

Fire departments from more than half a dozen neighbouring departments were called in, largely to provide water tankers and additional firefighters, although other equipment such as aerial trucks were also supplied by the Cities of Red Deer and Lacombe. Sylvan Lake, Innisfail, Bentley, Clive, the Counties of Red and Lacombe also supported Blackfalds’ volunteers.

Mayor Melodie Stol said the issue of water will no doubt be on the table as all the players meet to discuss the response, which involved activating the town’s emergency operations centre.

The industrial park, served by its own water wells, was in place before the area was annexed by the town about 10 years ago. Businesses were given the option — but not required — to tie into the municipal water system at a set cost. Some of the businesses north of Formula Powell paid to get hooked up.

Stol said she doesn’t know whether council would push remaining industrial businesses on water wells to pay to hook up.

“That’s a council decision. Council would have to discuss the pros and cons and the ramifications of doing that,” said Stol.

“I would say this, we would be willing to discuss and negotiate those businesses on their interest of hooking up considering they were grandfathered in when they were annexed. It would have to be a negotiated process.”

The fire, which broke out shortly before 6:30 p.m., was dramatic. A series of explosions and fireballs created loud bangs and cameras caught an oil drum being launched like a rocket dozens of metres into the air trailing a thin line of smoke. A large warehouse used to store chemicals used in the oilpatch was completely destroyed along with a number of tractor trailers.

No one was injured in the fire. Three Formula Powell employees had been at work when the fire broke out.

Scores of campers and slo-pitch players at nearby All-Star Park were evacuated between 7 and 8 p.m. for several hours because of concerns the smoke could prove dangerous. They were allowed to return to their sites around 10:45 p.m. after the fire had been contained.

The fire was largely out by 12:30 a.m., although fire crews remained until as late as 4:30 a.m. Blackfalds volunteer firefighters stayed on scene throughout the night and were still there on Saturday putting out hot spots with help from Red Deer County.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation and no damage estimate has been determined.

Canada Day fireworks had to be rescheduled to Sunday night because of the fire. They were set to go at dusk at All-Star Park, weather permitting.

This is the third fire at facilities owned by Grande Prairie-based Formula Powell in less than three years.

Last January, a fire broke out at a Formula Powell yard in an industrial park just outside Grande Prairie. In December 2008, fire destroyed a Formula Powell truck shop in Fort St. John.

Formula Powell representatives declined to comment on the weekend.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com