Feature Story                                                                                                  Friday January 27, 2012


Blaze Blacks Out Chilliwack

Aitchelitz substation inferno cuts power to 50,000 in the Upper Fraser Valley 

Craig Hill/Voice photos


Firefighters faced an exploding transformer loaded with toxic oil in order to subdue a stubborn electrical fire Friday morning on Lickman Rd.


huge cloud of noxious smoke painted the slate-colored sky over Chilliwack an angry coal black on Friday, when just after 9 A.M., fire broke out at the BC Hydro substation on Lickman Road. According to a City release, a transformer holding 115,000 litres of insulating oil, malfunctioned and caught fire, knocking out power to around 50,000 residences and businesses.


RCMP were the first on-scene and immediately set up barricades on Lickman Rd. and Keith Wilson.


All employees at the station were accounted for and unhurt.


BC Hydro shut the entire station down to allow firefighters to get in and attack the blaze, so that meant about 28,000 Chilliwack and Sardis customers were affected.


Witnesses told the Voice there were several explosions, including one that almost took them off their feet as they stood watching from an adjacent field. Jets of white material shot exploded  several times from the large round tank directly on top of the unit.


Firefighters laboured for several hours on the stubborn blaze, and at approximately 3:30 P.M., the City issued a statement saying that the fire was out things were back to normal.


The intersection lights went out across the city which snarled traffic as drivers dealt with four-way stop procedures. Power in the downtown core was back on in 10-15 minutes after going off. Elsewhere, the electricity began coming back on in chunks, mostly within a couple of hours.


At the height of the fire, the city issued an alert for residents to remain indoors and stay out of the smoke.


Mike Hellinger at 98.3 Star, reported 14 schools had closed. Cheam Leisure Centre followed suit and battened down it's hatches as well.


The transformer fire required specialized crews, and the City pulled in resources from Popkum VFD, Chilliwack River VFD and the Agassiz FD. As local crews were pulled away to the substation, others had to be called in as backup. The Abbotsford FD and "local suppliers have provided additional firefighting foam for our use," said Starlee Renton from the City of Chilliwack in a release. "We have called back a career crew of 4 to handle additional calls in town."


"The 12 onsite employees were quickly accounted for and confirmed as safe. As a precautionary measure, four of these employees went to hospital for assessment and have returned to work. The cause of the fire remains unconfirmed and will be investigated. BC Hydro spill response and environmental assessment teams are active onsite and Worksafe BC and local Ministry of Environment have also attended the site."


Ministry of Environment officials were on-scene due to concern over the toxicity of the black smoke which was visible all over Chilliwack as well as dealing with the remaining oil that had not burned off. An intensive cleanup of the site began immediately.


"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 Renton.


See more photos below.



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