It was 10 years ago this morning that a massive explosion near Otterburne caused thousands of residents in the southeast to lose their gas service.
The explosion happened in the early morning hours of January 25, 2014, along the TransCanada Corporation natural gas pipeline between Otterburne and Highway 59. Shortly after 1 am, St. Pierre RCMP responded to the fire in the Rural Municipality of De Salaberry. Five houses were quickly evacuated and Trans-Canada Pipeline advised that the burning gas was non-toxic. The explosion was visible from as far away as Steinbach.
At the time, Denis Vassart was serving as Emergency Coordinator for the RM of Hanover. He recalls getting a phone call that Saturday morning from somebody he knew with Manitoba Hydro's gas division.
"He told me that I was going to be busy," recalls Vassart. "He said TransCanada has had a major explosion at Otterburne, we're going to lose gas throughout part of Southeastern Manitoba."
Vassart says he quickly called Hanover's Chief Administrative Officer Luc Lahaie and met him at the municipal office. Moments later the official word came down from the province that gas outages were imminent. Vassart says it was then that they started calling in members of Hanover's Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) team.
Vassart says his team began calling businesses and Local Urban District committees to warn them of what was to come and by early afternoon they started hearing the first reports of gas outages.
According to Vassart, one of the key concerns was that this was all happening at the coldest time of the year. Not to mention, there was a winter storm brewing, that would hit southern Manitoba on Sunday.
Vassart says one of the first orders of business was making sure they had warming shelters in place. From what he recalls, by Saturday evening Hanover had shelters set up in New Bothwell, Grunthal and Kleefeld. However, he says they had an issue trying to get the gas hookup into the school in Kleefeld, which served as the warming shelter in that community.
For the next few days, the EOC team then did its best to assist the public and answer phone calls that came into the centre. Vassart recalls hearing stories from residents who used unique methods to keep the temperature in their home from dropping too low.
"They would disconnect the dryer vent from outside and pump it into the furnace and turn the dryer on for a little bit and warm up the house using that type of thing," says Vassart.
The EOC team also heard from residents who were baffled why they still had gas, yet all the residences along their mile road were without. Vassart explains the reason for this is there were pockets where some places had gas service longer, yet eventually those places would also peter out.
The gas outage lasted approximately three days. By three o'clock Tuesday morning, the natural gas supply was restored from TransCanada to Manitoba Hydro's distribution system in the Rural Municipalities of Hanover, Ritchot and La Broquerie. Ninety minutes later, Manitoba Hydro personnel began going door-to-door to confirm gas service had been properly restored and to relight pilot lights if necessary.
Looking back at the experience, Vassart says it was important for him to have an EOC team and an Emergency Plan, which lifted the burden from his shoulders. He notes because his emergency team of volunteers had performed exercises in advance, when the real life emergency hit, it was a matter of turning an exercise into a live event.
"It could have been a lot worse in the end," admits Vassart.
He says the EOC centre was open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday before they started to shut things down once resources were no longer needed. He recalls their warming shelters were not as busy as they had anticipated. And, finally around Thursday, five days after the explosion, they were able to close the EOC for good.
"It was one of the first major events that we went through as an EOC team," says Vassart. "I was able to make it through it, it was handled really well by the folks in the Emergency Operations Centre."
A decade later, Vassart is no longer the Emergency Coordinator for Hanover. However, he recalls that the Otterburne natural gas explosion proved that their Emergency Plan had holes in it.
"We found that our contacts with Hydro and other provincial entities weren't what we thought they were," he admits. "So their emergency plans and our emergency plans didn't line up."
He notes those were some of the changes they ended up making from this experience.
About 18 months following the explosion, the Transportation Safety Board announced a cause. It was caused by a pre-existing crack in the pipeline dating back to when it was constructed about 50 years earlier. It said the crack was likely the result of inadequate, poor quality welding at a time when there was no requirement that every weld be inspected.
There were no reported injuries from the explosion.