Humboldt’s fire chief describes firefighting at Guernsey derailment

GUERNSEY — Mike Kwasnica, Humboldt’s fire chief, said he is still tired after the Lanigan and Humboldt fire departments responded to a train derailment near Guernsey.

Around 1.2 million litres of crude oil was spilled as a result.

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Kwasnica said at 6:30 a.m. Feb. 7, he received a call from the Lanigan fire chief.

“It was a repeat of what we did two months ago. He asked if we would come and provide mutual aid again,” Kwasnica said. “We assisted with doing the command and setting up, and figuring out what we need to do next.”

Without Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CP’s) experts onsite, there was little the two departments could do for the first 10 hours to fight the blaze itself. Neither department was equipped for moving the derailed tankers.

“We could have sprayed water on it for the first 10 hours and not done anything but created a bigger environmental mess,” he said.

“That’s what train derailments really do. It’s a slow methodical process where you have to get the proper people on site. You have to have all the proper equipment on site and make the proper plan.”

Along with Lanigan’s fire chief, they held a meeting with local councillors to discuss options.

“It was decided at that time it was going to be a voluntary evacuation, just because the bloom of smoke was coming directly over Guernsey and we had black ash that was falling down in the town. You could smell the smell of burning oil.”

The Humboldt department assisted the Lanigan Fire Department in the evacuation of Guernsey, going door-to-door to inform the residents.

One member of the Lanigan Fire department, who works at the BHP Jansen site, brought a company bus to assist with getting residents out.

“We managed to get a BHP bus for any of the residents who were unable to drive.” Kwasnica said. “I think it only took less than an hour that we were able to evacuate – I think there were 85 residents at Guernsey.”

At the time, an emergency evacuation centre was set up at the community hall in Lanigan, where food and drinks were provided.

The RCMP maintained scene control in Guernsey and had cordoned off all the roads around the hamlet.

At about 10 hours, the decision was made to begin fighting the fire – with CP onsite contracted industrial firefighters called in.

“As soon as they get the call, there’s been a derailment they make the call with all their contracting companies. Then they start to show up on site and then it’s a matter of setting up a staging area, making sure everybody was in the staging area and setting up a game plan.”

Kwasnica said the firefighters used a mixture of foam and water, the standard for fighting oil fires.

“Once they started to bring some heavy equipment in to move some tankers, some tank cars and that sort of thing. They had to get a little control over the scene itself,” he said.

 “That’s how you clean up a train derailment. You need the heavy equipment to move these tank cars around.”

Some of the equipment utilized included track hoes, excavators and bulldozers.

 “They started picking away at the ones that are not burning and move them to one side. As they begin picking the ones that are on fire they were able to move the cars around and they were able to put them out as they were being moved around.”

Kwasnica described it as a game of “pick up sticks”.

“It’s just a bunch of tankers that are all put on part of a great big pile. You start picking the pile away,” he said. “You have to start strategically moving some tanks that aren’t on fire and making it to the ones who are breached and on fire.”

There wasn’t any worry about volatility on scene, with the tankers not being pressured.

“There was no fear that these were going to be exploding. Once they get to a certain temperature and to a certain pressure they tear open. It’s basically a bigger ball of fire but it’s very controlled.”

Kwasnica said the majority of the scene assistance from the Humboldt and Lanigan fire department became shuttling water for the contract firefighters who were sent out.

“We were there for about 36 hours. We switched off our crews, we had a crew of four there all the time and I think we had them on 12 hour shifts – we would switch them out.”

Kwasnica said he stayed 17 hours the first day, before going home to sleep for about four hours – after which he returned for about 16 hours.

As of Feb. 12 he was still tired.

“It takes a toll, that’s for sure,” he said.

“I just want to give a big shout out to the Lanigan Fire Department. This was the second time they’ve been tasked to do and we only provided four members at a time. Their entire fire department was out there for the full duration and they had to do this twice now.”

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