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Testing the Limits: ‘Career’ fire challenges Fort St. John

As told by Fire Chief Fred Burrows...
‘Career' fire challenges Fort St. John

December 6, 2007
By Laura King as told by Fire Chief Fred Burrows

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testingThree nights in a row, firefighters in Fort St. John Fire were woken up in the wee hours of the morning to respond to a series of suspicious blazes: a vehicle fire the first night; two garden sheds burning the next; a 3 a.m. duplex fire on the third night. There were more suspicious fires later that day – another car fire and a blaze at a squatters camp.

When a call came the fourth night, at 1:54 a.m. on Tuesday, June 19, sleep-deprived firefighters in the northeastern B.C. town were confronted with a blaze that they knew instantly was it.

Fire Chief Fred Burrows and his crews didn't know what to expect after the flurry of fires on the previous nights in Fort St. John in northeastern British Columbia. But even from a distance the chief and other firefighters arriving on scene knew this one was different. There was no question, Burrows said, that it was the "career" fire that every firefighter talks about.

"I was probably a good five blocks back and I could see that all four floors were burning so before I even got in I called for mutual aid," Burrows said about the fire that consumed a city block and tested the region's emergency services.

In mid-July, just a few weeks after the blaze that caused an estimated $15 million to $20 million in damage, Burrows put the fire at the Nova Star Inn & Suites and the adjacent Esta Villa Motel into perspective. "No one in this department had experienced a blaze of that magnitude," he said.

"The entire fire was a lesson. Not only did it tax our city's resources but it strained the resources of our North Peace area.

"It's important to set out your goal – where do you want to draw that line in the sand? – and know what your are willing to give up and where you want it to stop. In the early stages, the goal posts kept changing. We knew at the start the Nova Star and Esta Villa were lost and our priority became the Blue Belle [Motel] to the west and the commercial strip to the south.

"Unfortunately, we had to give up more than we had hoped in the commercial strip but as the safety issues – the burning gas line and downed, energized high voltage hydro lines were brought into check – we were able to stop the fire spread. In this case that was an accomplishment."

The inferno started at the Nova Star at 9603 Alaska Rd. Alaska Road is frontage road, a commercial strip of hotels, restaurants and other services, which runs parallel to the busy, four-lane Alaska Highway, or Highway 97. Fort St. John, a town of about 18,000, is 75 kilometres north of Dawson Creek and is a service centre for industry and workers traveling up and down the Alaska Highway.

The Nova Star had been under construction – the wooden frame is clearly visible in the early photos from the scene – but the 20 or so rooms at the adjacent single-storey Esta Villa were full of workers, who were evacuated and holed up at a nearby Tim Hortons. The Nova Star was surrounded by commercial buildings that housed everything from a compressor repair shop to an electrical wholesaler.

The Alaska Highway was shut down in both directions. Forty-six firefighters – 27 from Fort St. John, 14 from neighbouring Charlie Lake and five from the District of Taylor – fought the blaze until mid-morning, many of them exhausted from lack of sleep on the previous three nights.

The Nova Star fire and subsequent arrests of five teenagers made national headlines. But for the fire service, the story is in the massive effort to contain the blaze and the hurdles encountered by firefighters.

Burrows was on scene within six or seven minutes. A general call had gone out to the 27 career and paid-on call Fort St. John firefighters.

Fort St. John Engine 1, Engine 2 and Ladder 1 responded. The difficulties began almost immediately, in the 10 to 12 minutes after Engine 1 arrived on Alaska Road.

RCMP were already evacuating the Blue Belle next door. The Blue Belle was damaged by heat from the fire but the Esta Villa was gutted. Many of the workers staying at the Blue Belle were driving service vehicles owned by their employers. To complicate matters for firefighters, the workers were anxious to get the vehicles out of harm's way and started moving their trucks and cars out of the parking lots and into the streets.

"It's a very industrial city," Burrows said. "Most of the guests staying there were either contractors working on road projects in and around the city or companies doing oil and gas work. The Alaska Road was lined with paving equipment, gravel trucks, service trucks and the parking lot of the Blue Belle was filled with pickups – everyone wanted to take their vehicle, which created a huge problem on the frontage road as evacuees were heading west and fire apparatus was heading east. The world came alive at 2 a.m."

Engine 1 was faced with the fully involved Nova Star with fire on all four floors. The crew laid a four-inch supply line from a hydrant about 75 metres west of the Nova Star on Alaska Road and put Engine 1 into deck-gun operations.

According to Burrows, it was quickly realized that the 1,000 gpm being applied to the hotel was having little impact so Engine 1 redeployed and began providing exposure coverage to the Blue Belle.

"Then," Burrows said, "as Deputy Chief Curtis Redpath and myself arrived on
scene it was evident that things were deteriorating rapidly."

Burrows immediately saw signs of radiant heat and the buildings on the next block were starting to smoke. Those units were behind the hotels, on Sikanni Road, separated from Alaska Road by an alley about six metres wide that housed a gas line and hydro poles. Ladder 1 was already on Alaska Road, in front of the hotels. It was requested to move to Sikanni Road and begin suppression operations, meaning it had to turn around or back up. Movement was complicated by the dozens of workers' vehicles, which hindered the firefighters' ability to do their jobs and caused considerable frustration.

Within six minutes of Ladder 1 arriving on the scene, Engine 2 arrived and was preparing to take the hydrant at 96th Street, the front street for the Esta Villa. In Fort St. John, hydrant locations are pinpointed by the driver before leaving the fire hall or location information is provided to the driver by the dispatcher. The hydrant at 96th Street, however, had to be abandoned because it was too close to sagging power lines and hydro poles in the alley, which Burrows says were "burning like birthday candles."

Engine 2 relocated to Sikanni Road and laid a supply line down at the east end of the commercial strip while Ladder 1 worked on the west end of the strip. Charlie Lake's Unit 1 was the first mutual department to arrive. It set up a supply line from a hydrant off of Alaska Road and Charlie Lake's Unit 5 set up at this hydrant to relay pump to Unit 1.

The commercial building on Sikanni Road is a 35,370-square-foot concrete-block structure with firewalls between each unit. Radiant heat either ignited roofing materials or wooden overhead doors or other combustible materials at the back
of the building. The building housed Alpine Disposal, the town's garbage contractor. Three of Alpine's garbage trucks caught fire and started leaking hydraulic fluid, which fuelled the flames. Additional barrels full of hydraulic fluid were stored in the building.

Once Ladder 1 was in position, crews broke the scene into two zones, 85th Avenue Command at the commercial building fire and Alaska Highway Command at the hotel fire.

Burrows takes it from there: "While operations were developing on Sikanni Road, our third pumping unit, Tender 1, had been staged at 96th and the Alaska Highway waiting for direction and, at the same time, the District of Taylor's Pumper 12 was staged at the Alaska Highway and 93rd Street as there was still a bottleneck on the Alaska Road.

"Tender 1 was directed to take the hydrant at 96th Street and the Alaska Highway and lay a supply line across the four lanes and west on Alaska Road. Tender 1 then went into deck-gun operations and a 1.5-inch line was deployed between the Esta Villa and the Nova Star to extinguish fires in a shipping container . . . and stop fire spread on the Esta Villa. While Tender 1 was establishing its water supply, Pumper 12 was directed to take a hydrant on the Alaska Road approximately 600 feet east of the Esta Villa and lay a supply line west on Alaska Road and position in front of the Esta Villa. Pumper 12 deployed two 1.5-inch lines and its deck gun to fight the fire at the Esta Villa. This continued for several hours.

"At approximately 03:30 Engine 1 was relocated further east on Alaska Road. It went back into deck gun operations and a 2.5-inch line was deployed from this engine and stretched to the front of the Esta Villa. At this time they were trying to stop horizontal spread. The suites that were close to the ruptured gas line [in the alley] quickly became involved spreading to adjoining units.

"At 04:09 it was reported that another occupancy in the commercial unit, Ivanhoe Contracting, was showing signs of fire extension. By this time in the incident hydro had been shut off in the area and the lines that were down in the alley were no longer energized. This allowed us to extend the 2.5-inch in front of the Esta Villa . . . and assemble an attack crew . . . Within 30 minutes the fire in this unit was under control and by 5:19 overhaul had been completed."

Burrows talks incredulously about the devastation of the Nova Star, which he says "fell straight into the foundation" with only several inches of ash remaining, "like a big barbecue."

At about 7 a.m. the department requested an excavator be sent to the Esta Villa. At 7:30, Ladder 1 was moved to Alaska Road and 96th Street in front of the Esta Villa to work with the excavator on the last stages of suppression.

By that time, crews were exhausted; some firefighters had gotten fewer than 10 hours' sleep in three days due to the barrage of early morning calls. In addition, the attack was mainly exterior, and it was discovered through on-scene medical assessments that many firefighters had gone too long without rest.

"It's something we are going to have to look at in regards to assigning times . . . so that whole process can be tracked more closely," Burrows acknowledged.

"In this very unusual situation, a fire of this size, we were maxed out in our manpower."


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