Asst. fire chief recounts details of fighting sulphur fire on Capilano Reserve

"The sulphur in there was smouldering and causing a moderate amount of smoke.  It wasn't free flaming.  We went in and put it out.  The Squamish Nation and Norgate were put on evacuation warning.  Police went througn with their PA systems and asked residents to shelter in place." Assistant Fire Chief Martin Ernst of  West Vancouver Fire and Rescue played many roles today: media relations manager, firefighter, and coordinator, as sixteen fire fighters worked to extinguish smouldering sulphur in an open box car on the Capilano Reserve.

"We were mobolizing the Can Alert system because the smoke was starting to drift and increase.  The moment we were able to put water on it, smoke died down.  Winds were in our favour, because they were quite light.   We got the call at 2:45.  We arrived at the scene 8 or 9 mintues later.  We have to go through the process of product identification.  There was a victim. He was asthmatic.  We had to see how we deal with this specific product.  We established there was a half mile radius of immediate evacuation and that others would be put on alert.  Everybody stayed put. 

"What amazed me today was the amount of compliance we had.  Everybody the police asked to turn off ventilator, any kind of fan system, close your doors and windows. I'm sure people's homes got fairly stagnant inside, but we only asked them to do that for about a 2 hour period.  There were six police officers going through the neighborhood and providing traffic control points. 

 Certain traffic areas were shut down, like the low road through Squamish Nation, Ernst said.  The area, then the rail yards below were shut down to in coming traffic.  "We were getting people to move out and away from area.  The firefighters were wearing turnout gear, the firefighter uniform for fighting fires.  They used self-contained breathing apparatus, which was the recommendation for dealing with this particular product.

"We train for more serious spills. Our training is Hazmat awareness.  If this was more than a sulphur fire, an explosion or different kind of event, we'd bring in partners.  This was a small event for the potential of it. 

"We're lucky we didn't have a sulphur car that was flaming away.  The nice thing is that CN rail has trained hazardous protection officials.  We call it unified command.  We ran unified command between Fire Department, Police Department, BC Ambulance Service and CN Rail.  We all get together and decisions are made together.  We also brought in NSEMO."

The coordinated effort worked well, he said. "We train for it and we would expect no less from ourselves.  The fireworkers did a masterful job in extinguishing the fire quickly. 

West Vancouver Fire and Rescue employs 89 firefighters.  The sixteen that fought this fire came  from three different firehalls. 

The fire was out at about 4:30.

"I understand CN will be analyzing why the fire started with a mind to being sure it doesn't happen again. We rarely have fires in rail cars.  The last one was 15 years ago.  I don't know if they'll bring an engineer in to check the area. 

The fire on the Xwemelch'stn or Capilano Reserve put emergency preparedness officials  on alert today, as well, a Northshore emergency preparedness director said.  

"We put our emergency social services volunteers on stand by and we also were initiating what's called a Can Alert phone message system," Dorit Manson, Director of Northshore Emergency Management, told the Vancouver Observer. "The residents were being told to shelter in place and so we were in the process of initating a phone call out for the residents." 

About 500 homes are on the reserve. As the West Vancouver Fire Department got the situation in hand, Mason said,  the phone campaign to alert residents stopped.


 The area of concern covered an 800 meter radius around the spill. Indian and Northern Affairs and the Provincial Emergency Program were kept up to date on the fire. There were no  transportation impacts.

"We are the Emergency Management department for all three Northshore municipalities, the City of North Vancouver, District of West Vancouver, and District of North Vancouver," Mason explained. "The municipalities all have up to date emergency plans and we respond to any hazards. Our office provides the training, the planning, and pulling organizations together." 

"Sulphur isn't that dangerous by itself," Chris Shaw, a neuroscientist and professor at UBC, said.  Shaw, a Vancouver Observer blogger, and North Vancouver resident, has worried about about the dangers of hazardous chemicals traveling the rails from a chlorine plant situated beneath the Second Narrows Crossing through Vancouver.  

"But what if it had been chlorine?" Shaw asked.

"Had it been a rail accident with chlorine, they'd be evacuating everyone within a couple of kilometers.  Potentially thousands of people.  Let's be happy that's not what happened today.  But it calls into question the transport of dangerous materials through residential areas."

More in Public Safety

David Liu: Missing hiker's body found in Lynn Creek, North Vancouver

North Van RCMP: Body pulled from water in Lynn Creek identified as Hai Tao (David) Liu

Alexander Francis Gammie: Burnaby coroners confirm identity of 1975 cold case

BC Coroners Service confirms identity of 1975 cold case.

Vancouver moves to strengthen earthquake preparedness

Learn about Vancouver's updated earthquake preparedness strategy, and how you fit in.
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.