Fire chief lauds response to gas leak, blaze

With work already underway to get students back in class at J.W. Walker School, Fort Frances Fire Chief Gerry Armstrong said the actions of residents, businesses, and responder agencies to last week’s gas leak and fire there are commendable.
“I fully appreciate the inconvenience and, more importantly, the unknown of these types of situations, and I can understand the distress this sort of disturbance can cause,” Chief Armstrong said Monday.
“An evacuation of this magnitude was necessary to ensure the safety of all our residents until emergency responders were satisfied there was not any chance that gas had migrated to surrounding buildings,” he added.
“We worked very closely with Union Gas personnel and other contractors to contain the leak and ensure further damages would not occur.
“We’re really fortunate that people did what they were asked to do. No one was injured, no one got hurt,” Chief Armstrong stressed.
“Unfortunately, people were inconvenienced and we understand that. But we’re really happy that we asked them not to return until we knew that it was completely safe, and people abided by that.
“We couldn’t ask for more as far as the residents are concerned.”
Chief Armstrong noted it’s also fortunate the evacuation order could be lifted before the end of the day Friday, meaning evacuees did not have to spend the weekend away from home.
Chief Armstrong stressed many individuals and organization need to be recognized for their contributions during last week’s incident, not the least of which was the Fort Frances Fire and Rescue Service.
“I’m very proud of our firefighters who made a few critical decisions on arrival at the scene that helped reduce the risk of injury and ultimately saved the school from additional property loss,” he remarked.
He also said the Fort Frances OPP, Rainy River District EMS, International Falls Fire Department, Victim Services of Fort Frances, Public Works, Memorial Sports Centre staff, Fort Frances Power Corp., Union Gas personnel, George Armstrong Co., and Darryl’s Landscaping all helped out during the incident.
“With the collaborative effort of all these organizations, we are able to speak positively about the experience,” said Chief Armstrong, adding local media—specifically B93•FM and the Times—should be credited “for getting our message out to everyone.”
Chief Armstrong said the municipal control group, which, ironically underwent a test exercise only the week before, convened for one briefing last Thursday morning.
After assessing the situation, deputy mayor Sharon Tibbs did not have to declare a state of emergency.
But some operations did come into play. For example, an emergency control room was established at the Civic Centre to co-ordinate agencies such as the town, fire department, OPP, ambulance, and other services.
An emergency evacuation centre also was set up at the arena, although the majority of residents evacuated did not utilize it early Thursday morning or prior to the evacuation order being lifted late Friday afternoon.
As well, public information officer Darryl Allan and OPP community services officer Anne McCoy took the lead managing media relations last Thursday and Friday.
Chief Armstrong said from a municipal control group perspective, the response went smoothly.
“We’re really happy with the way it went. Everybody knew their role, they came in and did what they needed to do,” he remarked. “There was no misunderstandings.
“All in all, the whole operation went quite well.”
Chief Armstrong noted the town and all agencies involved met Monday and again yesterday to review the strengths and weaknesses of their responses to the emergency, and identify how they could be better prepared if a similar situation were to happen again.
Chief Armstrong also said the public should be reminded about the importance of being prepared for situations such as last week’s gas leak and subsequent evacuation.
“When you must leave your home on short notice, be sure you have necessary items such as medications, personal care items, and anything you may need to get by for 24-48 hours,” he noted.
“These things need to be packed and ready to go as time is critical.
“And last, be sure to remember pets that may need to be fed and cared for,” he added.
< *c>Fire investigation
As noted, the evacuation order for residents in the area of the Keating Avenue gas leak was lifted late Friday afternoon and J.W. Walker School returned to the control of the Rainy River District School Board.
But the investigation continues into the exact cause of the explosion and fire at the school in the early-morning hours of last Thursday.
Rolf Waffler, an investigator from the Ontario Fire Marshal’s office, stated Friday afternoon that the cause of the explosion was a leak in a gas main.
The natural gas was able to enter the school along a watermain, where it accumulated in the building.
The explosion happened in the boys’ change room by the gymnasium.
But the source of ignition has not yet been determined.
Waffler returned to Thunder Bay on Saturday, bringing with him evidence from the scene for further review.
While the school’s gym was heavily-damaged, Waffler said the school itself is “not a total loss.”
“The loss is confined to the gymnasium. Water damage is confined to the sub-basement area and classrooms, and to the office and library area,” he explained.
“However, that water damage is only on the floor as a result of the broken sprinkler system,” he added. “There was no opportunity for the utility to shut it off as the gas leak was at the shut-off.
“The area of the original school is intact. There is only water damage on the floor. Everything that was on the desks or on the walls was okay,” continued Waffler.
“On the second floor, there is no damage, no smoke damage, nothing.”
Waffler said this part of the school could be used again, but exactly when depends “on what engineers determine are the safety issues in regards to the collapse of the gym.”
Waffler said this certainly isn’t the first natural gas explosion he’s seen.
“Natural gas or fuel vapour explosions are very large in scale,” he noted. “Unlike a chemical explosion, with dynamite for instance, these explosions push and shove walls, so the damage looks significantly greater than what would be caused by a chemical-type explosion.
“This is a normal scene for a natural gas explosion.”
Waffler also noted it’s “fortunate” the explosion happened just before 1 a.m. on Thursday.
“There were no kids in school and very few people walking the street at that hour of the night,” he remarked. “If school had been in session, we’d be talking about quite a different situation.”
As previously reported, police were contacted at 10:58 p.m. last Wednesday by Union Gas to conduct traffic control at the Keating Avenue and King’s Highway area due to a suspected gas odour.
Then at 12:44 a.m., there was an explosion at J.W. Walker that resulted in the fire.
Several west-end schools and businesses were closed, and about 150 residents evacuated due to the potential danger of the gas leak, as firefighters fought the blaze at the school.
After the fire was extinguished, Waffler was on the scene Thursday afternoon to initiate his investigation of the explosion.
Union Gas crews wrapped up their work at the site on Monday, Andrea Stass, the company’s manager of public affairs, said yesterday.
Union Gas workers’ job began early Thursday as they sought out the source of the leak and devised a repair plan.
They safely stopped the gas leak and completed temporary repairs to the pipeline on Friday. Union Gas crews then completed the permanent repairs Saturday, with gas flowing through the mainline by the late afternoon.
The temporary repair then was decommissioned.
They remained on site through Monday to clean up and ensure everything was going to plan.
“I think, from our perspective, the work is done. We were conducting our final clean-up [yesterday],” said Stass.
“Where it goes now is the fire marshal will have that section of pipe and conduct an investigation into the cause, and we will co-operate with them into the investigation,” she added.