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Propane blast rocks Toronto

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Propane blast rocks Toronto
On Sunday, Aug. 10, 34 apparatus and more than 100 firefighters battled Toronto’s second six-alarm blaze in six months. Laura King looks at the response.

October 1, 2008
By Laura King

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Just six
months after Toronto Fire Services battled one of the biggest infernos
in the city’s history on Queen Street, another six-alarm blaze tested
the mettle of the more than 100 firefighters who responded to the
Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases explosion that rocked the Ontario
capital on Aug. 10.



By all accounts – blogs, news stories, and politicians quoted on
24-hour news stations – Toronto Fire executed a textbook response to
the 3:50 a.m. alarm, with 34 apparatus and 125 firefighters on scene.

One news report said Toronto’s emergency management plan was activated
shortly after the explosion in North York, “which sent fireballs into
the air, shook scores from their bed, was heard across the city and was
visible as far away as Niagara region.”

“The response was quarterbacked at an operations centre by city manager
Shirley Hoy and her deputy, Richard Butts, who were in contact with
police, fire and ambulance services on the front lines.

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TFS Deputy Chief Jim Shelton was the incident commander at the scene,
working alongside two division commanders and another deputy chief.
Deputy Chief Darryl Fuglerud was at communications and reported to the
Emergency Operations Centre when it was activated by the city manager.
TFS Division Cmdr. Bob O’Hallaran was the liaison between the Toronto
police and the fire service.

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The Technical Standards and Safety Authority made legal applications on Aug. 22 to permanently shut down Sunrise Propane.

A National
Post blogger described the response this way: “Crises measure an
organization’s virtues, strengths, capabilities and leadership. In the
aftermath of last Sunday’s spectacular propane blast that forced more
than 12,000 Toronto residents from their homes and led to two deaths,
observers have a much clearer picture of what works in Canada’s largest
city and what is in desperate need of repair.

“The City’s emergency services undoubtedly deserve the respect afforded
them by Torontonians. Police, fire and other emergency officials
answered the call to evacuate the area around the explosion and contain
the fire that destroyed the Sunrise propane facility with speed and
professionalism. They saved lives.”

That said, political fallout has overshadowed the response to the
incident and the line-of-duty death of TFS District Chief Bob Leek, who
was found near the scene with vital signs absent, and a young Sunrise
worker whose body was found at the site.

In light of the political hand wringing over the fact that a massive
propane facility was allowed to set up shop in the heart of a
residential neighbourhood, Toronto Fire Services and other agencies
were effectively gagged by the city in its attempt to manage the
message. No wonder. Lawsuits have been filed. Asbestos was found near
the site, having blown out of nearby schools. A 16-kilometre stretch of
Highway 401 was closed for the better part of the day, something
Ontario Provincial Police spokesman Cam Wooley told The Canadian Press
he hadn’t seen in 30 years on the job. A partial no-fly zone was
established in the air. Residents who lived close to the site were
literally blown out of their beds. More than 10,000 people were
evacuated. People were angry; the media was hungry for details and
Mayor David Miller was out of town.

“The city has taken control of any outside information going out
because it’s bigger than just a situation that the fire service can
control,” said one TFS spokesperson. “That’s why the city is taking
control, including their strategic communications staff.”

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Toronto
firefighters survey the site of Sunrise Propane Industrial Gases.
Thousands of Torontonians were evacuated from their nearby homes.

Meanwhile,
Deputy Chief Shelton and other TFS personnel remained on scene for
several days after the blast to support the investigation.

“Time of day saved us,” Shelton told reporters that Sunday afternoon
before the city clamped down on news coming out of the site, noting
that few people were out or working nearby at 4 a.m. on Sunday.

Several days after the incident, crews hadn’t pieced together what
caused the explosion and fire. Division Cmdr. Bob O’Hallarn said in an
interview on Aug. 18 that the Office of the Fire Marshal was still on
scene.

The OFM was investigating along with Toronto police, the Technical
Standards and Safety Association, the coroner’s office, the Ministry of
Environment (because of the discover of asbestos) and the Ministry of
Labour.

As of press time in mid-August, 70 homes remained off limits and six were thought by officials to be uninhabitable.

O’Hallarn was the calm and level-headed voice of the Toronto Fire
Services on the day of the explosion, facing TV cameras and reporters
in several news conferences.

“There was a very, very large amount of fire when we arrived and the
extent of the explosion, if the blast was heard as far away as it was,
could have been much more serious,’’ he said.

Later in the day O’Hallarn said there were propane tankers still burning at the site.

“We’re working on cooling those down,’’ said O’Hallarn. “And we’re evacuating the area as a precaution.’’

Toronto Fire Services spokesperson Capt. Adrian Ratushniak described the cooling operations to The Toronto Star:

“We cooled the cylinders off with copious amounts of water and left
anything that (was) burning on the top to burn off,” he said.

“You’re best off controlling the fire where you can see it, rather than turn it out and let the gas spread.

“If there’s a fire under one of these propane cylinders, it will warm
up that cylinder and bring it to a point where it is boiling and if
there is a slight crack in that cylinder then the likelihood is that
you’re going to have an explosion.”

Ratushniak said because of the risk of explosion, firefighters set up
unmanned hoses near the tanks then withdrew a safe distance and
monitored the cooling process.

The initial explosion was most likely a blevy, something TFS worked
through the rest of the day to prevent. The tanker trucks were still
burning at 12:30 p.m., more than nine hours after the first early
morning explosion.

O’Hallarn said during the interview that Toronto Fire’s planning for this kind worked meticulously.

He said first in Deputy Chief Dan Antle’s decision to evacuate the area around the Sunrise Propane site was key.

“I believe the planning did work,” O’Hallarn said by cell phone from
the Murray Street site. “Our initial resources were concentrated on
getting those people out of that area. There were still people in area
and they didn’t really now what to do.”

O’Hallarn said when he arrived on Murray Street, between 4:30 and 5 a.m., “there was still a lot of flame.”

Various reports said there wasn’t enough water near the site so
firefighters ran hoses from locations up to a kilometer away.
O’Hallaran said the magnitude of the site and the extent of the fire
likely meant water had to be brought in.

Acting Fire Chief Roy Law told reporters on the night of Aug. 10 that
after more than 16 hours of battling a series of blasts at plant the
blaze was under control.

The City of Toronto was still in damage-control mode at press time,
saying it has little control over the location of companies such as
Sunrise Propane due to zoning regulations that preceded amalgamation.
Sunrise, which is based in the former city of North York, had
previously been cited for unsafe practices but the company had also
been told by municipal officials in 2004 and 2006 that its plant met
the zoning requirements.

Still, editorials in Toronto newspapers have called for the city to
adopt tougher zoning regulations and have questioned the city’s
rationale for not doing so sooner.

 “It was six years after amalgamation that Sunrise operators first came
to the city, asking if their propane plant fit the rules,” The Toronto
Star said. “That was enough time to bring North York’s overly loose
bylaw in line with stricter zoning elsewhere in Toronto – if only it
had been made a priority. With those changes in place, Sunrise owners
could well have been rejected in 2004. True, they could still have
taken their case to court, or the Ontario Municipal Board, but the city
would at least have taken a stand.

“Miller has responded to the crisis by launching a review of where the
city stands, including what new powers it might deploy under the City
of Toronto Act. One hopes action will be swift.”


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