A tanker truck fire could have ended very differently if weren’t for a few good and fast decisions made Sunday afternoon, according to the Blackpool Fire Rescue chief.
Just after 11 a.m., crews from the Little Fort and Blackpool fire departments responded to a call of a semi-trailer with two fuel tankers and its wheels on fire sitting about 450 metres up a runaway lane on Highway 24.
The driver noted the brakes of the B-train tanker truck had caught fire during the decent towards the town of Little Fort, and exited up the runaway lane near Cartwright Road, about five kilometres from town. The truck was hauling 38,000 litres of gasoline in one tank and 15,000 litres of diesel in the rear tank.
When crews arrived, they made an attempt to fight the blaze, but as the fire grew with intensity, and with the lack of water supply and inability to sustain an attack, Blackpool Fire Rescue ordered an emergency pull back.
“It was unsafe for our crews to remain,” Chief Mike Savage told The Times.
Crews retreated 800 metres from the scene. A family home nearby was evacuated, and given sprinkler protection, while three other families in homes near the 800-metre mark were told to shelter in place. Highway 24 was closed to traffic in both directions.
About 10 minutes after the team was told to retreat, the gasoline tanker blew.
As anyone who has used gasoline to light a campfire knows, it’s not the gasoline itself that ignites the flame — it’s the vapours. The 38,000 litres of gasoline were emitting vapours that are three to four time heavier than air with the ability to travel long distances along the ground.
The flames from the brakes mixed with the fumes from the gasoline tank, causing an explosion and what’s known as a flash.
“That flash can basically burn everybody around it,” said Savage. “That’s why we pulled our crews back because it was getting to that point where it was unsafe, and within 10 minutes of the pull back, she blew. It was 100 feet in the air, huge fireball.”
When they were certain the fire wouldn’t do anything more than just burn, they opened the highway to single-lane traffic, with a pilot vehicle to ensure there was no risk to responders and also to prevent travellers from slowing down to look or to stop.
While the highway was closed, however, sirens from an ambulance could be heard travelling towards the scene. While an ambulance is on stand-by for any structural or serious fire, this particular ambulance was travelling from 100 Mile House to Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops with an emergency patient transfer. Crews were able to get them through the scene safely.
Savage reminds those watching any emergency scene from afar to not speculate what may be happening. Rumours such as an emergency responder needing medical attention or an ambulance can unnecessarily worry family members, sending panic throughout the community.
After the blaze had been roaring for most of the day, emergency responders were able to get local drone footage of the truck. This allowed them to see they had an opening for an attack.
“The drone footage showed that we had an opening for a tactical advantage to make a second attempt,” said Savage. “Based on that on-site intel, we were able to move crews in and hit the fire with a large monitor with foam at distance, cooling the rear tanker trailer and skipping foam into the open flame with the last of the small amount of product.”
They extinguished the fire and made it safe enough to move in with hand lines and ground crews and save the rear tanker.
With the fire out, it’s up to the company to dispatch a hazmat team to pump out the diesel, assess the wreckage and take the truck away. They were to do that today (June 14), according to Savage.
Seventeen firefighters, with two engines, two tender trucks and a bush truck, along with members of the RCMP and BC Ambulance were on scene. The Fire Commissioner’s Office and local governments also were notified and BC Wildfire brought in, in the event one or both of the tankers blew and sparked a forest fire. Fortunately, there was minimal wind, allowing the flames and smoke to rise upwards.
Despite the uncertainty of those on the outside, all emergency crews and the driver of the truck were safe when fire crews officially packed up and left the scene at about 9:00 p.m.
Savage said that while it was a bit stressful at the start when the fire was unpredictable, the call to bring crews back was good as the blaze did exactly what they had feared.
“If the risk isn’t reasonable for what you’re going to benefit, then get your people out,” he said. “That’s what we work by. That’s our golden rule.”
Sunday, June 13, 4:13 p.m.: Highway 24 has been opened to single-lane traffic each way, and vehicles are being piloted through the area.
Emergency crews are still on scene and the fire is not yet under control. Dark smoke can be seen billowing from the hills in Little Fort and along Highway 5.
The driver of the semi is safe, confirmed Const. Lockwood.
Video taken by Joey Onley shows thick smoke billowing into the sky, along with sirens in the background. While there is mention of an ambulance in the video, it has not been confirmed that an ambulance arrived at the scene, or if there were any injuries to emergency crews.
12:30 p.m.: A fuel tanker truck on fire has closed Highway 24 near Little Fort, B.C., according to the RCMP.
Both the Little Fort and Blackpool fire departments are responding to a fire on Highway 24 and the runaway lane near Cartwright Road, about five kilometres west of Little Fort. The driver of the fuel tanker pulled into the runaway lane after the wheels caught fire. The truck is carrying 53,000 litres of fuel.
Fire crews have determined the fire is too dangerous at this time to fight the blaze, so they are on scene and monitoring the situation.
The highway is closed in both directions, confirmed Const. Lockwood of the Clearwater RCMP detachment. No detour is available. Crews are asking travellers to avoid the area and plan alternative routes.
The residents of a nearby house have been evacuated and a shelter-in-place has been enacted by the RCMP for others in the area. Emergency BC has been contacted, and a shelter established, in case an evacuation is needed.