On Monday, May 26, 2008, the Fire Rescue Service of Prince George, British Columbia, was faced with managing four major incidents in a 12-hour period that would become the largest combined fire incident in the city's history.
The first fire occurred at Canfor's North Central Plywood Divisions mill at 6565 Industrial Way in an industrial park in the city's south end. It is believed that burning embers from this fire were responsible for starting two of the other three major fires. Built in 1970, the main Canfor's plant building was wood construction and sheet-metal facing, with a roof constructed of timber and steel Howe trusses, and purlins five by 19½ inches located at 12½-inch centers. Rafters were two by 10 inches at 32-inch centers. The main plant measured 510 by 200 feet. The "Green End" building (where raw logs were cut into thin sheets of veneer by giant lathes) was 220 by 82 feet. The roof of the Green End was approximately 20 feet higher than the main plant building, with a sloping section joining the two roof sections. The buildings contained heat detectors, sprinklers and standpipes with fire hose stations. There were no Fire Department Connections to supplement the sprinkler and standpipe systems.
The Prince George Fire/Rescue Service was dispatched to a reported fire at the mill at 5:53 P.M. Engines 11 and 31, both 1,500-gpm pumpers, and Ladder 21, a 100-foot aerial ladder with a 1,750-gpm pump, responded with 12 firefighters under the command of Assistant Chief Rod Wiese. First-arriving units saw heavy smoke coming from the roof above the veneer dryers. All employees and Canfor's industrial fire crews had evacuated the building prior to the arrival of the fire department. The three apparatus were positioned along the west side of the building.
A 300-foot, four-inch hydrant supply line was laid by Engine 11. Firefighters stretched a 200-foot, 2½-inch line and a 200-foot, 1½-inch line into the building to attack the fire. A 200-foot, 1½-inch line was stretched to a door at the north end of the building. Engine 31 was fed by a 400-foot, four-inch hydrant supply line. Firefighters advanced a 300-foot, 2½-inch line and two 300-foot, 1½-inch lines to the lower roof on the north end of the building. Ladder 21 was supplied with a 200-foot, four-inch hydrant line. The aerial ladder was extended to the upper roof and firefighters advanced a 200-foot, 2½-inch line and two 200-foot, 1½-inch lines to the roof. Engine 41, a 1,250-gpm pumper, arrived at 6:13 P.M. Crews laid two 250-foot, 2½-inch lines and one 250-foot, 1½-inch line to the northeast corner of the building from Engine 41.
Fire Chief Jeff Rowland assumed command of the fire at 6:54 P.M. The first crews on the roof reported a partial collapse of the roof around ventilation equipment directly above the fire. Progress reports from the roof sector indicated the fire was breaking through the roof in different areas around other ventilation equipment. Firefighters aggressively attacked the fire from the interior and the roof for three hours using six 2½-inch lines and six 1½-inch lines.
At approximately 9:30 P.M., the wooden curtains above dryers one and two partially collapsed. When this occurred, the fire extended through the rest of the building within minutes. Incident commanders sounded the evacuation horn and the interior crews left the building without incident. As the roof crews were exiting the roof, fire was breaking through the roof behind them. The firefighters safely exited the roof using Ladder 21.
Rowland ordered firefighters to change to defensive operations. Fire apparatus and hoselines were repositioned to protect exposures and hazardous materials stored around the mill site. The plant's sprinkler system and standpipes were damaged when the building collapsed and could not be isolated from the hydrant system, further complicating water-supply issues. Engines 11, 31 and 41 were repositioned to protect exposures. Monitors on the three engines were deployed and several 2½-inch lines from each engine were placed into operation. The fire in the main building was contained and resources were used to protect the exposures. At 11:30 P.M., two 2,500-gallon water tenders were dispatched to the scene. Off-duty crews were called in to relieve firefighters at the scene. All available fire personnel were used at this fire.
More than 65 firefighters operated at the scene. Damage was estimated at $100 million.
At 12:25 A.M. on Tuesday, May 27, a fire was reported at Interior Warehousing at 1024 Great St. This was a one-story concrete-block structure constructed on a cement pad with an open-web, steel-truss tar-and-gravel roof with metal clad on the edges. An overhang above the loading dock ran nearly the entire length of the north side. The 39,680-square-foot building contained a warehouse and several light-industrial occupancies. The warehouse was 1½ miles from the mill fire.
Engine 31 was dispatched to the call while returning to the Canfor's fire from a nearby electric pole fire. The engine company found the north end of the building fully involved. Reserve Engine 12 responded with an off-duty crew to assist Engine 31. Ladder 21 was reassigned from the mill fire to the warehouse fire. This warehouse was on the same water system that was being used at the mill fire. Officials were already monitoring the water supply and requested tenders be used to supplement the supply for operations at this fire. The two 2,500-gallon tenders were used for a water supply, as the reservoirs that supply the industrial park were depleted.
Hazardous materials were stored in large quantities in the warehouse. They included caustic wash storage tanks, many different sizes of propane tanks, oil and industrial herbicides. Due to the heavy fire involvement, no interior attack was attempted. The exterior attack was focused to stop the fire in the northeast section of the building. This was a critical stop by firefighters. Had the fire continued to extend into the north corner of the building, approximately 1,200 gallons of herbicide would have become involved. The Ministry of Environment advised that an evacuation radius of one mile would be needed. Crews remained on the scene until the evening of May 28. The cause of the fire was undetermined. Damage was estimated at over $6 million.
At 4:30 A.M., Tuesday, May 27, a dumpster fire was reported at McInnis Lighting at 1289 Fourth Ave. in the city's downtown. At this time, no fire apparatus was available to respond. Seven firefighters were at Fire Station 1 rehabbing from the other incidents. They loaded hose and equipment into a fire prevention vehicle and two firefighters responded to the scene, four blocks away. The other five firefighters ran to the scene carrying self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).
By the time firefighters arrived, the dumpster fire had extended into the 50-year-old, two-story, wood-frame building. Firefighters hooked hoselines directly onto a hydrant and made entry. They contained the fire to the exterior wall and wall structure of the building. An engine and crew were reassigned from the warehouse fire to assist with overhaul. The exterior wall was extensively damaged and the interior of the building sustained smoke damage. Damage was estimated at $70,000. The cause of the fire was determined to be materials ignited in the dumpster.
Between the time that the mill collapsed and the warehouse fire, a fire was reported in the Canadian National Rail Yards near the Canfor's mill. Firefighters responded with one engine and assessed the situation. A pile of approximately 1,000 railway ties had caught fire. Fortunately, this fire was isolated away from any exposures. CN railroad crews arrived with equipment and water. Firefighters turned this incident over to the railroad crews and returned to the mill fire.
Firefighters had responded to a number of fires at the Canfor's facility in the past. Some of the fires were serious and required extensive resources. In this case, first-arriving crews found a well-seated fire in a location that was very difficult to access safely. The structural failure of the wooden smoke curtain breached the fire containment, and the fire rapidly propagated throughout the structure. The heavy-timber construction allowed firefighting operations to continue safely until this point.
The fire at Interior Warehousing spread rapidly due to the open construction of the facility. By adopting a defensive tactic from the outset with concentration on protecting the herbicide-storage area, fire crews averted a large evacuation and an environmental emergency.
Despite scarce mobile resources, Prince George firefighters mounted an effective attack on the McInnis Lighting fire using hydrant pressure and support vehicles. This resourcefulness limited fire damage to the structure, and the business reopened shortly afterward in a temporary location with its saved inventory.
The Prince George Fire/Rescue Service controlled eight incidents ranging from major fires to false alarms in a 12-hour period. The City of Prince George declared a State of Local Emergency, letting city officials access additional resources, if needed. The Ministry of Forests was contacted to assign wildland firefighters to patrol nearby wildland areas for possible fires. City officials contacted the regional government to obtain a list of available resources and to discuss how the resources could be accessed. The fires were brought under control before other resources were required.
Jay K. Bradish/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.