Fire officials may not know for some time what triggered last Friday's massive fire at a BC Hydro substation, according to assistant fire chief Ian Josephson.
Flames took hold of the Lickman Road substation just after 9 a.m. Friday morning. Within minutes, flames were shooting high into the sky and acrid black smoke was billowing over Sardis. As firefighters rushed to the scene and scrambled to cool the inferno, city officials advised residents to shield themselves from the smoke by taking refuge indoors and sealing their homes. For the firefighters on the ground, the challenge became finding enough water and foam to spray on the fire. The inferno was fueled chiefly by a 115,000-litre oil tank that had ignited. With the closest water main stopping at South Sumas Road, several hundred metres north of the substation, crews had to ferry water back and forth to the fire.
Firefighters from all Chilliwack fire halls battled the blaze, with the help of tanker crews from the Popkum and Chilliwack River volunteer fire departments and the Agassiz and Abbotsford fire departments.
Meanwhile, BC Hydro accounted for all its employees. Four were taken to hospital "as a precautionary measure" but returned to work by the end of the day.
To allow the fire to be fought, BC Hydro quickly shut off power to 50,000 households-nearly all of Chilliwack. As word spread that power may not be restored until late in the afternoon, many workers headed home, only to find roads snarled because every traffic light in the city was no longer working.
The inferno knocked out power to many Chilliwack schools, and the district closed 11 for the afternoon because power wasn't expected to be restored until after 4: 30 p.m.
Some students writing an electronic civics exam at Sardis secondary had to be bused to Rosedale to finish their test. An electronic math exam was delayed at Chilliwack secondary for about 15 minutes when power went out temporarily at that school but other tests at Sardis secondary and G.W. Graham went ahead without power.
The fire and ensuing power outage also forced the closure of the University of the Fraser Valley's Trades and Technology Campus. And at the Chilliwack Law Courts, proceedings were suspended after the lights went suddenly black. (Dim backup lighting wasn't enough to save the morning's work).
By noon, the fire was under control and power had been restored to downtown Chilliwack. Shortly therafter, the city declared the fire extinguished, although it cautioned that the transformer and its storage tank-which held 115,000 litres of oil-may still reignite. Just before 3 a.m., the city said it was safe for the public to resume regular activity and power had been restored to all of Chilliwack a half hour later.
Josephson said the tank did reignite once more, and crews visited the site again over the weekend after what was thought to be smoke, but turned out to be steam, was seen coming from the substation.
He said the city planned to speak with BC Hydro officials to prepare for any future incident.
"We want to work with Hydro and see if there's some way of getting the water main extended down there and maybe get a hydrant right at the gate," said Josephson. By the fire's end, 300 gallons of foam and countless litres of water had been pumped on the blaze. "If we can get them to have foam storage on site, then that will save us from running all around the regional district trying to scrounge foam."
Josephson said BC Hydro also offered to replace the firefighting equipment of members who came in direct contact with the oil.
"They've said, we don't want you guys cleaning this stuff. It's better to just replace it."
BC Hydro sent its spill response and environment assessment teams to the site Friday. Worksafe BC and Ministry of Environment officials also attended, according to a BC Hydro press release.
"A thorough incident investigation will be conducted in the coming days and a restoration plan is being developed to replace the damaged transformer and address any other effects of the fire at the substation," said BC Hydro in a press release.
Not everybody took the fire quite so seriously. With the power out, Friday night's Chilliwack Chiefs game and a sold out comedy show at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre both appeared in danger of cancellation. But while the events went ahead as planned, the comedians at the Ultimate Comedy Show found plenty of comedic material in the day's drama.
In one sketch, a comic knocked on the imaginary door of another comedian.
"Hi, I'm from BC Hydro," he said, introducing himself.
The response-"S---, what happened today?"-drew one of the night's biggest laughs.