Firefighters battling a major blaze after a CN tanker train derailed west of Edmonton on Saturday decided to withdraw and wait for the flames to burn themselves out.
With no further explosions expected from the 13 cars carrying oil and liquefied petroleum gas, that’s the safest thing to do, said Parkland County fire chief Jim Phelan.
“This fire needs to be extinguished by consuming the product,” Phelan said. “We’re going to let it burn itself out.”
But Phalen told a news conference in the nearby community of Seba Beach later Saturday that it could be anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before evacuated residents could go home.
About 100 people from the village of Gainford were forced from their homes after 13 rail cars — four laden with petroleum crude oil and nine carrying liquefied petroleum gas — came off the tracks around 1 a.m. local time. Three cars began leaking and caught fire.
“It was a huge boom and the house started shaking,” said Devon Cadwell, 15, who lives on a ranch just outside Gainford.
One resident told CHED radio he heard a series of crashes moments before seeing a “huge, huge fireball” shoot into the sky.
“The fireball was so big, it shot across both lanes of the Yellowhead (Highway) and now both lanes of the Yellowhead are closed and there’s fire on both sides,” said the witness, identified only as Duane.
The evacuation was organized almost immediately.
Gainford resident Glenda Madge said she and her husband were jolted awake at 3 a.m. by pounding on their door. It was the fire department telling them they had to get out.
“They were waiting outside for us, so we had to hurry up and get dressed and grab whatever we could — medication that my husband is on,” Madge said, speaking by phone from a hotel in Entwistle about 20 minutes’ drive from Gainford.
CN executive vice-president Jim Vena issued an apology to the residents of Gainford.
“All of us at CN are very much aware of how much this incident has disrupted your lives. I regret this very much and apologize for the inconvenience you are experiencing,” Vena told a news conference.
Helicopters were in the sky above Gainford for much of Saturday, tracking and fighting small brush fires caused the derailment.
Meanwhile, fire crews waited outside a perimeter about a kilometre-and-a-half away from the derailment scene.
“It’s your typical train derailment, where all the cars are jumbled up and the middle ones are burning and the end ones are not,” Phelan said.
At the peak of the blaze, about 43 firefighters and 12 pieces of firefighting equipment were on site, said Phelan. That was being downscaled by about half by early afternoon.
At about 9 a.m., about six residents were being escorted back into Gainford to pick up medications when they were driven back by a second small explosion.
Phelan said a pressure valve on one of the cars opened, spraying fuel into the blaze and creating a fresh gust of flame.
“There was a little pop,” Phelan said.
No injuries to people or livestock have been reported. No damage to homes or other private property has occurred.
The area, which is about 80 kilometres from Edmonton, remained under a state of emergency. Travel on the Yellowhead Highway — the main east-west corridor in northern Alberta — was restricted and news media were being kept far back.
Madge said that when she reached an evacuation centre in nearby Entwistle, she and her neighbours were talking about events earlier this year in Lac-Megantic, Que., where a train derailment and explosion killed 47 people.
“It was a little scary,” Madge said, noting she felt lucky that no one appeared to have been hurt in this derailment.
The Transportation Safety Board said it has investigators at the scene but that they haven’t been able to examine the wreckage, yet.
CN said the track was tested with ultrasonic equipment in September and was visually inspected on Thursday of this week. No issues were found in any of the inspections, it said.
The train, the railway noted, was inspected when it left Edmonton for Vancouver on Friday evening. Again, it said no issues were detected.
Shortly after the evacuation began, the county sprung to life to assist their displaced neighbours.
Officials roused owners of Entwistle’s restaurant and grocery store, so evacuees could get supplies. The gas station was opened so RCMP and other emergency workers could fuel up.
By 3 a.m., an evacuation centre with hot coffee and food was set up in Entwistle’s community hall. People were sent off to local hotels with assurances their expenses would be covered.
“It’s a good rural environment where people support each other,” said Sara Jensen, the community development co-ordinator with Parkland County.
“Everyone’s either in bed or being fed.”
Carson Mills, a spokesman for Parkland County, noted that it was in Parkland County that more than 40 cars of a CN Rail train derailed in 2005, spilling 800,000 litres of bunker oil and wood preservative into Wabamun Lake.