In an event of serendipitous timing, Lakeland College’s Emergency Training Centre (ETC) was in the thick of its new research project on smoke suppression when local residents received an emergency alert that toxic smoke was billowing from a privately owned oil lease site southwest of Vermilion.
Still under investigation, the blaze involved four crude oil tanks in the County of Minburn near Township Road 480 and Range Road 82, just west of the County of Vermilion boundary. The emergency Air Quality Alert went out at 5:17 p.m. on Tuesday, January 30, notifying residents of Minburn and surrounding areas as far away as Wainwright to shelter in place and close all windows and doors as protection from the toxic plume of thick black smoke rising from the aggressive fire.
Minimizing the hazardous effects of this type of smoke is the focus of ETC’s newest research program, a four-year undertaking that will examine the strategies, application methods, products, and combinations of products that could be used to reduce the environmental impact and threat to human health that toxic smoke poses.
Funded by Natural Resources Canada for a quarter-million dollars and another $250,000 from research partners, this project brings experts from France, the United States, and Edmonton together to try to uncover ways to effectively suppress smoke and the toxins it contains. Shawn McKerry, Dean of ETC, explains that in an environmental or hazardous materials emergency, one firefighting option involves letting the product burn off. While this in-situ burning results in an easier cleanup, the thick black smoke that is produced poses a risk for humans, pets, and wildlife.
Already, the project is finding success: one of the products being tested has made a substantial improvement on the smoke, transforming dark black plumes into what appears more similar to campfire smoke. McKerry explains that, for example, a 70% reduction of the black smoke in the air would be significant and potentially even industry-changing.
The Lakeland crew was not called out to lend a hand with the Minburn County fire, but was willing and ready to provide support if needed. The fire was well staffed, with mutual aid from the Town of Vermilion, the County of Vermilion River, the Town of Wainwright, the Town of Vegreville, the Village of Irma, and the private Firemaster Oilfield Services Inc. joining the Minburn County Fire Department’s response. The emergency air quality alert was lifted shortly after 7 p.m. the same day, with the fire formally dubbed ‘extinguished’ about two hours later. Incident Commander and Minburn County Fire Chief Mike Fundytus described the fire as the biggest he has fought in his career. Thankfully, no one was injured. Cleanup and fire watch followed.
The County of Minburn expressed its gratitude to the responders present and ready to attend the blaze, as well as to the EC911 dispatchers who managed the radio chatter of multiple departments while also fielding calls from concerned residents and media outlets.