Fighting fires: Wildfire prevention a key planning consideration for B.C. oil and gas

By Andrea Danelak

Photos courtesy of the City of Fort St. John.

With Canadian wildfires making international headlines, it’s no surprise fire prevention is at the forefront of the minds of those working in the oil and gas industry.

While the fires in Fort McMurray exacted a toll on Canadian oil operations and the economy, other provinces have also felt significant impacts from wildfires in recent months. In April 2016, Progress Energy Canada Ltd., a gas driller in British Columbia, evacuated its operations in the North Montney area due to wildfires.

“The North Montney fires initially started a long way from any oil and gas installation, but eventually led to evacuation orders as they progressed,” says Brent Bye, senior protection officer at the Prince George Fire Centre. “When it comes to evacuations, our biggest concern is making sure that no one is in the way, so we can make sure everyone gets out safely. Of course, there are always the economic impacts of shutting down installations, but human safety is our overriding concern.”

According to Bye, many fires in the industry ignite due to poor maintenance and location of flare stacks. “Everyone is trying to reduce their footprint, leading to some of these installations being improperly designed,” he says. “But the proper maintenance and location of flare stacks are two huge considerations in fire prevention.”

Natural threats like dry grass can also pose a threat for area installations come springtime. “Once an area is snow-free, it takes 24 hours to become dry enough to burn, and it will stay dry enough to burn until it’s over 50 per cent green,” says Bye. “Some years are worse than others.”

Bye advises companies to be proactive in their fire planning efforts and create a mitigation strategy to reduce the impact of wildfires, ensuring fire suppression equipment is available and employees are aware of safety standards and emergency procedures.

“Keeping installations clear can help reduce the risks from a fire burning over, and also makes for a nice worksite,” he says, adding provincial fire centres also have resources available to the industry. “Companies can fire-smart their installations, and we can even supply them with a risk assessment, as they should be aware they’re putting themselves at risk when they’re in the boreal forest. That assessment can ask the questions: ‘What happens if we have a fire? What happens if it starts here?’ Having a safe location and fire-smarting helps with that risk mitigation.”

Those planning measures often go hand-in-hand with local jurisdictions’ emergency preparedness plans.

“All local governments must have a plan in place and are required by legislation to conduct analysis on each community to determine risks, threats and vulnerabilities, whether for wildfires, earthquakes or avalanches,” says Lori Ackerman, mayor of Fort St. John, of the B.C. Emergency Response Management System, an advanced service model that has met with great success in recent years. “They are required to plan to mitigate those hazards and risks.”

Fort St. John has seen the results of the response system first-hand, as the city acts as one of the region’s emergency service reception centres, providing services for evacuees from the North Montney area earlier this year. “We had also been involved with a similar evacuation a few years ago,” says Ackerman.

Bye looks forward to continued collaboration with the oil and gas industry in the future. That collaboration, along with the proper planning, education and safeguards in place, will continue to help decrease the impacts of wildfires to the industry.

“What I love about the oil and gas industry is that they’re great to work with and they’re also a tremendous set of eyes for us, as they’re active in remote locations that we wouldn’t necessarily visit,” he says. “We work together as closely as possible, and we’ve opened up the lines of communication more often and a lot sooner than we used to. If we can reduce the impacts of the fires just by sharing information, it makes a big difference.”

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