Intensive clean-up and environmental monitoring will be ongoing for weeks at an electrical substation in Chilliwack in the wake of a major fire on Friday.
It took crews about three hours to battle the oil-fuelled blaze and several more hours after that to cool the damaged transformer equipment at the Atchelitz substation on Lickman Road.
Investigation into the substation fire in Chilliwack is underway by BC Hydro but no details have been released yet on possible causes.
Spill response contractors and environmental assessment teams were dispatched to the site immediately to begin the clean-up.
Sampling and remediation, including replacing the damaged equipment, will likely take weeks, said BC Hydro officials.
They’ll be using containment booms and absorbent material to remove spilled oil at the site, which is located on agricultural land on Lickman Road near South Sumas.
The fire was called in at around 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 27 after a transformer insulated with 115,000 litres of oil burst into flames.
The substation facility was quickly “de-energized” to assist with the firefighting effort, which in turn knocked out electricity to tens of thousands of homes across Chilliwack and Abbotsford.
A monumental firefighting effort involving “lots of water and foam” was waged Friday to extinguish the flames, said assistant Fire Chief Ian Josephson.
“We also had to cool down the transformer completely so it wouldn’t reignite,” said Josephson.
At one point city officials warned residents to stay inside, close all windows and turn off furnaces to prevent toxic smoke from being drawn inside. A huge plume of billowing black smoke, which later turned grey, could be seen from great distances.
School officials kept children inside as a safety precaution.
the 12 substation employees were quickly accounted for, said BC Hydro officials. Four workers were sent to hospital to be checked out and were given the all-clear.
Firefighters wore self-contained breathing equipment that kept them safe from the toxic smoke, but the assistant fire chief admitted they’d never dealt with that much burning oil at once.
The biggest challenge for fire crews turned out to be the lack of a water supply to the substation.
“We had to use our tanker to shuttle water to the site,” said Josephson. “So the biggest issue for us was not having an adequate water supply.”
That’s a future discussion they’ll be having with BC Hydro about being prepared for the next time.
They might consider stockpiling the fire-retardant foam, as well, he said.
Fire retardant foam went down on the burning oil, but some had to be brought in from neighbouring Abbotsford.
Ministry of Environment emergency response personnel are working with BC Hydro on ground and water sampling requirements. Worksafe BC also attended the site.
There’s no risk of contamination to the Chilliwack water supply from the spill, said city officials. The substation is far enough outside the capture zone of the Sardis aquifer, so the local drinking water supply is not considered at risk.
The fact that there were no injuries related to the fire is nothing short of miraculous, said Mayor Sharon Gaetz.
“I want to say thank you to the firefighters, emergency responders and police. These people did an incredible job in difficult and dangerous circumstances.
“There was gridlock throughout the town during the fire, so I’m also thankful for the patience shown by folks who were trying to get around town. I think they quickly understood something serious was happening.”
The city fielded very few complaint calls on Friday, mostly just some from residents enquiring about safety concerns.
Power was eventually restored to roughly 50,000 customers in Chilliwack and Abbotsford affected by the outage in stages. About 28,000 Chilliwack and Sumas customers had their power on within two hours after the fire and remaining customers by late that afternoon.