Written by Mark van der Feyst
We are continuing with a look back over the last 10 years with articles that have been a highlight based on the topic or feedback. This article was published in August 2009 and was a highlight because of the topic: not much is discussed about overhaul.  
Written by Mark van der Feyst
This year, Back to Basics has reached a milestone. We are entering our 10th year of publication. When I look back on the past 10 years, I am amazed at how much we have covered. I must admit that I never thought this column would last five years, let alone 10. For our 10-year anniversary, I am going to recap some of my favourite articles from over the years that garnered attention within the Canadian fire service.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
I recently conducted a structural burn session class for a local fire department, where members had access to a school building for live-fire training. The training day allowed firefighters to refine their skills under realistic conditions.
Written by Tamar Atik
Oct. 11, 2017 – One single ounce of oxygen. That’s all it would have taken for an explosion to have occurred at Pacific BioEnergy’s Prince George, B.C. facility in August 2017. 

It was Thursday, Aug. 24 when chairman and chief executive officer Don Steele found out that one of the wood pellet fuel company’s silos began smoldering overnight.

Steele was hosting a group of seven guests who had flown from Nagoya, Japan for a tour of the facility. 

“I advised them," he explained. "I said we could go up and have a look. We might even go on the property and they wouldn’t see much. But, at that point in time we were evacuating,” Steele said.

Although reported as a fire in mainstream media, the incident was a smoldering situation. 

Wood pellet consultancy company FutureMetrics’ John Swaan founded Pacific BioEnergy Corporation in 1994. His direction on-site is one of the main reasons why an explosion didn’t take place.

What was the winning solution? Nitrogen injection. 

In an industry where the potential for explosions is all too common, this was the first time that a North American pellet operation successfully put out a smouldering issue. 

“We have a number of incidents that have happened in our industry, mostly in Europe, that have not gone successfully,” Swaan said.

“There were some references that I shared with Don and his key people on-site,” Swaan recalled from the day. “And then his VP of operations gathered his key people around and took a look at what the options might be and looked at the references,” he explained. “I shared the report about how best to handle these [situations], that was done in a research centre in Sweden.” 

“So we did some calculations, and based on those calculations, a decision was made with Don and his people to say ‘OK, let’s bring in the nitrogen.’”

“A simple reaction would be to try and open [the silo] up to put out the fire, which would have been catastrophic,” Steele said. “Any oxygen entering would have been disastrous. It was a tremendously risky proposition.”

The silo holds 3,500 tonnes of pellets. Steele said that’s the energy equivalent of about 10,000 barrels of oil. The incident had the potential to have the entire surrounding city evacuated.

The nitrogen injection equipment was brought to the facility from neighbouring Alberta within eight to 10 hours. Alberta’s oil fields have prompted the province’s first responders to be prepared for fire suppression missions to prevent explosions. 

The smouldering material in the silo was injected with nitrogen for a few days until it was safe enough to remove in small amounts. The nitrogen arrives as a liquid and needs to be turned into a vapour.

“I think the first principle of it is, liquid nitrogen is an inert gas,” Steele said. “In other words, it can’t explode or burn. So you use it to push the oxygen out of the container and then try and seal it off. We tried with foam and various things, but once you’ve got the oxygen content below a certain level, [about] 10 per cent, you’ve minimized the risk of an explosion. So then you can start pulling the material out.”

“We basically wetted it down, and over a course of seven days eliminated the risk, moved the material out, quenched the fire risk and then stockpiled it over in another part of our property,” Steele said.

“I think the key thing is nobody overreacted… I don’t even think there was a Band-Aid.”

Swaan and Steele said the cooperation between industry and first responders was what ensured a safe outcome.

“This kind of incident has the potential of major, major injury. Our people knew how to safely handle the material and the first responders and fire department knew how to look after our people to keep them out of harm’s way,” Steele said. “They had the respiration equipment, they had the fire hoses, they had the ability and the technique for putting out a fire. Our people knew how to move the material through and safely evacuate the silo.”

Half a million dollars-worth of material and product was destroyed and a lot of equipment was damaged, but Steele says everybody’s safety makes the situation a success. 

“It’s a happy beginning actually, because we’re beginning now to refit and add to our knowledge of our product and how to handle it,” he said. “And I think the whole industry is going to learn something from it too.” 

“I say anything that can be fixed with money is not a problem. You can’t fix people with money, particularly if they’re severely injured or killed.” 

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ [a silo fire could happen] it’s ‘when,’” Swaan said. “But the good news is that we now as an industry have a lot of new learnings. We have experience that we can now share with the industry so that we can make it a safer industry for these types of situations.”

Steele said, “The key thing is, think before you act, use other information, use your judgement, move deliberately, keep everybody safe.”

This story was originally published in Canadian Biomass.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
Many fire-ground tasks can be accomplished by one firefighter during an emergency and in non-emergency situations. One single-firefighter task that is beneficial for small teams to understand is bundling of the standpipe or highrise kit.  
Written by Ed Brouwer
Training in the fire services is not for the faint of heart. The time, energy and plain old hard work can be overwhelming at times. However, every now and then, a young firefighter looks at you and says, “I get it.”  
Written by Mark van der Feyst
Learning the basics isn’t always by the book. It takes practice to get things right and a page is no match for practical application.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
I recently taught a recruit class about foam. Given the few opportunities that today’s firefighters have to do actual fire fighting, it is always good idea to revisit the topic.
Written by Len Garis and Karin Mark
When assistant deputy fire chief Ray Bryant heard about construction of the tallest wood building in the world in Vancouver, his reaction was predictable.
Written by Ed Brouwer
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Horticultural Technologies fire in Kitchener, Ont. (March 1987). It is in memory of the emergency responders who lost their health and later their lives in this horrific industrial fire incident I present this month’s column. First, a word of thanks to a young Kitchener firefighter, Timothy Ritchie, who reminded me of the anniversary.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
We have come to the fifth part of our series on standpipes. So far, we have looked at using standpipes within buildings, either wet or dry standpipes. But what happens when the provided standpipe will not or does not work when we need it?
Written by Don Jolley
My November column outlined the key decisions and components in the development of the BC Structure Firefighters Competency and Training Playbook, particularly the decision to focus on competencies rather than certification. Now let’s focus on the standard itself and what makes it work.
Written by Jason Benn
August 2016 - On Jan. 4, at approximately 11 p.m., Puslinch Fire and Rescue Services was dispatched to a barn fire at Classy Lane Stables boarding and training centre located on Concession 1 in Puslinch, Ont.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
We have been exploring the topic of standpipe-equipped buildings and highrise operations. In November, we looked at the equipment needed to conduct standpipe operations, and I mentioned that firefighters can carry only so much, which leads to the next topic: how many firefighters are needed for this type of operation?
Written by Mark van der Feyst
In my August and September columns we looked at options for securing the standpipe – on the fire floor or the floor below the fire.
Written by Ed Brouwer
At the 2016 British Columbia annual volunteer firefighter training seminar, hosted this year by Osoyoos Fire Department, I witnessed far too many firefighters struggle with their SCBA packs while trying to manoeuvre through tight and narrow openings. Some firefighters spent valuable airtime going low profile, while others took their BA packs right off. Both these methods of manoeuvring through wall breaches or narrow openings have been taught to firefighters for decades and for the most part they are safe and will work. However, there is a third method that our SOO HOT (Saving Our Own Hands-On Training) crew uses that is just too good to not share – we call it the cross-under technique.
Written by Mark van der Feyst
There are debates among fire service personnel about where firefighters should secure the standpipe in high-rise buildings. Some firefighters propose that the standpipe be secured on the fire floor while others advocate that crews hit the standpipe on the floor below the fire floor. There are considerations for both options that fire services need to understand before choosing one or the other.
Written by Neil Campbell
When I started working in the fire service in 1995, much of a new recruit’s training was based on knowledge passed down from senior members to rookies.
Written by Ian Bolton
From the Vandalia Avenue fire in New York City in December 1998, in which three FDNY firefighters died, to the Forward Avenue fire in Ottawa in February 2007
Written by Ed Brouwer
If the effects of the approaching cooler weather stay true to our country’s history, there will soon be an increase in fire calls. Most residential fires in Canada occur during the winter. This is also true of fire fatalities. Sadly, more people are likely to perish due to an accidental home fire during the holiday season than any other time of the year.

There are three major causes of residential fires during the winter. Two of the three will come as no surprise: chimneys and candles. The third cause is clogged dryer vents. In fact, according to the NFPA, the number of dryer-vent fires has exceeded chimney fires since 2005, and most dryer-vent fires occur in January. Some researchers list dryer-vent fires as the No. 1 cause of residential fires.

As for candles, we all love the warmth and ambiance they provide, but it is easy to forget that a candle is an open flame that can reach 1400 C. Most candle-caused fires start in the bedroom, except during the holidays when decorative candles are involved.  

The most common cause of chimney fires is the ignition of creosote in the flue. Creosote forms primarily due to the use of unseasoned or green wood in the fireplace. There are other factors that can lead to creosote buildup, such as failure to maintain a proper temperature inside the flue, burning wet wood, or failure to clean the chimney regularly.

Fires in masonry chimneys can burn to a temperature of 1093 C. These fires can damage the masonry material, which can then provide an opening for fire to escape into voids of combustible components such as the inner walls or attic space.

There are several indicators of a working chimney fire:
  • Sparks or flames exiting the top of the chimney
  • A whistling or buzzing sound in the chimney
  • A back flow of smoke through the heating device into the structure
  • Discoloration on the walls adjacent to the chimney
  • Smoke emanating from the cracks in the wall or electrical outlets near the chimney
The minimum response to a chimney fire should be one engine company, one ladder company and an EMS unit. The engine company is required for fire extinguishment and the ladder company is required to supply tarps, ventilation fans, overhaul tools and ladders. Smaller volunteer departments may have all of this equipment on the engine, however, they still need EMS on site due to the fact that firefighters are working on the roof, often in freezing or otherwise inclement weather.

The potential for injuries at a chimney fire may be greater than previously thought. NFPA 1500 Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program requires an EMS unit on fire responses.

The following tactics should be considered when establishing standard operating guidelines for chimney fires:
  • Establish command upon arrival; safety officer and RIT should be assigned.
  • Conduct an exterior size-up and look for signs of a chimney fire.
  • Call for resources to ensure safe operations.
  • Gain entry; search for and remove victims; wear full PPE and SCBA; monitor oxygen levels and ensure adequate ventilation. Consistently monitor oxygen levels for carbon monoxide (CO). Chimney fires can cause the flue to fail allowing CO to escape into the walls, ceilings, attics and other voids.
  • Perform horizontal ventilation if needed. Positive-pressure ventilation is the method of choice in these situations. The ventilation exit point should be as close to the heating device as possible, thereby minimizing the spread of smoke within the structure.
  • Advance a hoseline to the front door as a precaution.
  • Spread a runner or salvage cover on route to the stove or fireplace. Not only does a salvage cover catch any ashes or embers that may fall, when and if the wood is removed from the firebox it also keeps bunker boots from tracking dirt onto the carpet. Plastic tarps fail quickly when they come in contact with fire embers, so consider fire-resistant cloth tarps.
  • Stop the flow of oxygen to the flue. Reducing the oxygen flow to the flue decreases the intensity of the fire in the flue and in some cases will extinguish it completely. This step may not be possible on open fireplaces.
  • Extinguish the fire in the firebox. Before you put the fire out, consider using the fire in the firebox to your advantage. Sometimes a mere cup of water applied onto the burning fuel will cause the resulting steam to travel up the chimney and extinguish the flue fire. Multipurpose dry-chemical agents will put out the fire in the firebox, but will not usually extinguish anything further up. Only remove fuel from the firebox if it has been extinguished and if absolutely necessary (there are very few good reasons to take this step).
  • Ladder the roof. If an aerial device is used, it should be extended to the chimney opening. If ground ladders are used, a wall or extension ladder should be placed at a good roof entry point, and a roof ladder should be extended to the roofline adjacent to the chimney. If the roof is covered with combustible material, a charged hoseline should be advanced onto the roof as soon as the ladders are in place. Do not place the ladder or secure the ladder to the chimney. Cautiously remove the chimney cap, bird screens, or spark arrestors with a hand tool. All firefighters on the roof should be wearing full PPE, including SCBA.
  • Each of our trucks has a chimney kit consisting of a mirror, a length of chain (4.5 metres), and a chimney bomb (zipper-seal bags containing dry-chemical powder), and a small fire-place shovel, all placed inside a metal bucket.
  • Inspect the chimney using the mirror. If there is fire, drop the chimney bombs down. When the chimney bomb reaches the firebox, the bag will burst and the normal draft will carry the powder up to extinguish the creosote. (Be sure to communicate your actions to the interior team).
  • Slowly lower the chimney chain from the top of the flue to the firebox. Spin the chain to knock the creosote from the walls onto the firebox where it can be extinguished with water or a dry-chemical extinguisher. There is some opposition to putting water down the chimney based on the fear that the water may rapidly cool the flue causing it to fracture. These fractures may then go undetected and future use of the chimney may result in products of combustion being released into the walls or attic. The key is in the amount of water used and how it is applied. There are special nozzles (six liters per minute) designed to apply water inside the chimney.
  • Check the clean-out box. This is perhaps the most over-looked step. Clean-out boxes can be found both inside and outside the house. The boxes are usually covered by a 20-by-20-centimetre metal plate with two handle tabs on it, mounted on the wall in line with the chimney. There may be more than one – I once found three. After locating the box, use a small shovel and a metal pail to clean out the burning embers. Once this is done, you can place a small, handled mirror into the box to look up into the flue. You should be able to see if there is still a fire in the flue.  
  • Check for fire extension. Look for obvious signs of fire extension beyond the chimney. All roof, attic and wall areas near the chimney and heating devices should be checked for the following signs of fire extension: discoloration or blistering of surface materials; hot-to-touch areas; smoke coming from cracks, electrical outlets, light fixtures, eaves or roof coverings; visible glowing embers. This is a great time to use a thermal imaging camera or heat sensors if your department has them. Be sure to check each floor. If the fire extends beyond the chimney, treat it as a structure fire.
  • Before leaving the scene, inform the resident that the chimney must be inspected by a certified chimney inspector before it is used again. Our department has forms made up that clearly lay this out for the resident. We get them to sign and date it and leave them with a copy. We also inform our dispatch that the resident has been advised.  
  • Check the CO levels one more time before terminating the incident.
The previous tactics can be customized for use with a dryer-vent fire.

Thank you for your continued efforts to make sure all our firefighters get home safely after each call. Please drop me a line if your department has any hints for dealing with dryer-vent fires. There is very little information available in print, so your input would be invaluable.

Stay safe and remember to train as if their lives depend on it.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and Greenwood Fire and Rescue. The 25-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor/evaluator and an ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact Ed at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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