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Firelines: May 2014

I was in Halifax in January 2012 when our deputy chief called from Fraser Lake at three in the morning to advise that Babine Forest Products near neighbouring Burns Lake had exploded and was on fire.

April 24, 2014
By Dave Balding

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I was in Halifax in January 2012 when our deputy chief called from Fraser Lake at three in the morning to advise that Babine Forest Products near neighbouring Burns Lake had exploded and was on fire. That event would leave two workers dead and 20 injured. Several weeks later in April, Lakeland Forest Products in Prince George experienced a similar tragedy. That was the beginning of a long investigative process that would lead to a lot of education and increased awareness in the sawmilling and firefighting communities.

WorkSafeBC has now released its report on the Babine incident, which looks strongly at combustible dust as the cause of the explosion and subsequent fire. Combustible dust, it turns out, is a common hazard in manufacturing and industrial settings, including operations that handle wood, pharmaceuticals, tires and aluminum, to name a few. Nobody knows what caused these events; what we do know is we need to educate those in the sawmilling industry and the fire service so that such an incident never happens again.

To that end, in October 2012 the British Colombia government created the Fire Inspection and Prevention Initiative (FIPI). Its mandate is to improve fire-code compliance in primary wood product manufacturing operations that have combustible wood dust-producing processes. FIPI aims to accomplish this by creating greater awareness in the industry around combustible dust hazard recognition and mitigation along with providing training to local assistants to the fire commissioner about combustible dust, fire-safety plans and basic inspection techniques. FIPI’s final goal is to build stronger ties and enhance co-operation among the three regulatory bodies having jurisdiction in this area – WorkSafeBC, the BC Safety Authority and the Office of the Fire Commissioner – in a fire safety plan referral process.

We’re all familiar with the three elements required for combustion that form the fire triangle: heat, fuel and oxygen. There are only two further components needed for a dust explosion to form what is known as the combustible-dust pentagon. The first is dispersal; in other words, the dust particles must be airborne. This occurs commonly in industrial settings, whether in the work area itself, or within dust-collection systems. The second – confinement – is easily met within the walls of a workplace. Combustible dust explosions are typically two-stage events. First, all the necessary components of the pentagon combine to create a deflagration or explosion. This event, perhaps relatively minor, then disturbs accumulated dust throughout the building, introducing it to a source of ignition causing what is known as a secondary, potentially much more devastating explosion.

Successful removal of one or more sides of the combustible-dust pentagon would eliminate the risk of further events. Some options are not feasible. Managing the fuel available is the most effective method of preventing a combustible dust occurrence. One of the sawmilling industry’s greatest challenges is that by the very nature of its work, it generates an enormous amount of potentially combustible fuel: sawdust. Keeping fuel accumulations below hazardous levels (less than one-eighth of an of inch of dust over five per cent of an area, according to NFPA 664, Standard for the Prevention of Fires and Explosions in Wood Processing and Woodworking Facilities, 2012 Edition) is essential to minimize the chance of another dust explosion.

Is learning about combustible dust truly part of fire fighting? I would answer with a resounding yes. It is only due to good fortune, along with a lack of awareness, that there haven’t been more combustible-dust tragedies in our manufacturing and processing sectors. The people we protect deserve more than a reactive fire service. It is not only essential that we respond effectively to emergencies, we absolutely must contribute to fire prevention in every way we can. Public education is a large part of that mission, as is code enforcement. FIPI’s three priorities – educating industry, local assistants to the fire commissioner, and co-ordinating the three regulatory bodies to enhance code enforcement – are a good start, but they’re just a start.

Where do we go from here? It is my belief that British Columbia’s Office of the Fire Commissioner must continue when FIPI ends its two-year mandate in the fall with a legacy of increasing awareness and code compliance by supporting the fire departments in the province. This may be a significant endeavour for that organization, one that, in my opinion – along with a renewed commitment of support for the fire service across British Columbia – must be once again embraced.


Dave Balding, a 29-year veteran of the fire service, is the fire chief and emergency co-ordinator for the Village of Fraser Lake in British Columbia’s Central Interior. Contact Dave at dbalding@fraserlake.ca and follow him on Twitter at @FraserLakeFire


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