Hellfire Suppression Services Inc. is known for its expertise in oilfield firefighting, but the Rocky Mountain House company has also developed a reputation for handling problem fires outside the oilpatch.
In 2012 it extinguished a blaze in a mountain of scrap at Calgary Metal Recycling; early this year it doused a fire at the Westar Landfill near Medicine Hat; and now a half-dozen Hellfire employees are tackling a smouldering community dump at Iqaluit, Nunavut.
“We’ve been doing more and more landfill, storage-pile-type fires,” said Ryan Stambaugh, senior well control fire specialist with Hellfire. “They’re happening more and more, so we’ve taken more of an interest in it and developed some specialized tools and different things.
“We’re able to deal with stuff that people say should not be dealt with.”
The Iqaluit fire has been burning since spring — too deep for fire hoses to reach, and in a pile of garbage too unstable for backhoes and other heavy equipment to safely get at. City officials had planned to let it burn out, but changed their minds after smoke forced the closure of schools and prompted health warnings.
“These guys actually contacted us back in June when this was happening and asked us to see what we could put together to extinguish this fire for them,” said Stambaugh, who arrived with his crew on Aug. 24.
Also called in was Global Forensics Inc., a Red Deer company that specializes in hazardous materials response and emergency planning. It’s acting as site manager, overseeing logistics and safety, and ensuring proper reporting to the various levels of government.
“This is the first time we’ve been utilized this way, so this is a new area for us,” said Mike Noblett, who spent 32 years with the Calgary fire department and is now Global Forensics’ explosion and fire analyst.
He’s been on the scene since Aug. 27.
An “overhaul process” is being used to root out and extinguish the fire, said Stambaugh. The contents of the dump are being removed section by section, with each wetted down, stirred up and restacked.
“It’s kind of like putting out a giant campfire,” he said. “It definitely takes time. You cannot leave anything unturned.”
“There is no easy formula on something like this,” added Noblett. “We had a pile of garbage about the size of a Canadian football field — at one end about 50 feet (15 metres) high and on the other end about 10 feet (three metres) high.”
He estimated that the task of systematically working through the dump’s contents is about 60 per cent complete.
“It’s a monumental job for the guys doing the work.”
Alternatives had been proposed, including injecting carbon dioxide or a fire retardant foam into the burning pile. But the overhaul process was chosen as the only way to ensure the fire was extinguished.
Originally, salt water from nearby Frobisher Bay was going to be used.
“We recognized right away that it would be 100 times harder on the equipment and on the manpower,” said Noblett, adding that the resulting odour would also be worse.
So the decision was made to pump fresh water from a creek four km away. Two high-volume portable fire pumps were brought in and Hellfire arranged for two workers from RapidFire & Rescue Inc., a Red Deer company that it works with, to help with the pumping.
The isolated location of Iqaluit, which is north of the Arctic circle on Baffin Island, has been a challenge, said Noblett.
“Basically, anything that’s needed has to be flown in.”
“We have a total of about 65,000 pounds (29,500 kg) of equipment that was flown in,” said Stambaugh.
Despite working 13 to 14 hours a day, the Albertans have enjoyed the hospitality of the city’s residents, even receiving invitations to dinners. And their efforts have captured national media attention.
“Discovery Channel has actually been in contact with us a couple different times, looking at doing a special piece on the company,” said Stambaugh.