The smell was so overpowering that it didn’t take much to convince Lil Meloche to grab her dogs and leave her rural British Columbia home after a tanker carrying 35,000 litres of jet fuel crashed into a nearby creek.
An evacuation order issued Friday night was lifted Saturday in the area around the small community of Lemon Creek, in the West Kootenay region of the province. Officials said about 1,500 people were affected by the evacuation at its peak, including Meloche.
“Awful smell,” said Meloche, 77. “That was bad... It’s gone now, though.”
She was returning from a shopping trip to nearby Nelson when she was stopped on the road Friday afternoon and warned an evacuation could be coming.
“I just got in, just put my groceries away and they come around telling us we were evacuated,” said Meloche, who uses an oxygen tank for health reasons. “I grabbed my dogs and left.”
Meloche stayed at a friend’s home until about 9:30 p.m. Friday night, when she was allowed to return. A local state of emergency remained in place and the area medical health officer left a do-not-use water order in place for another 24-hours after the evacuation ended.
The truck that crashed into Lemon Creek, about 60 kilometres north of Castlegar, B.C., had been on its way to supply helicopters battling a nearby wildfire when it careened into the creek off a gravel road in the Slocan Valley.
The accident occurred about 5 p.m., the company advised officials around 6 p.m. and an evacuation order was issued around 9:30 p.m. Friday night for 80-square kilometre area along the creek and the Slocan River that it feeds. That order was reduced Saturday morning and then lifted entirely.
Officials said the fuel evaporates quickly and Dr. Trevor Corneil, the medical officer of health for Interior Health, said air samples in the area were well below the limit by mid-afternoon.
“The concern with this particular type of jet fuel is direct contact with the skin can cause burning and certainly significant reaction on the skin. If one breathes significant amounts of it, it can damage the throat and the airway...,” Corneil said, adding that it can also cause health problems if ingested.
No acute health problems had been reported, he said.
A hazardous materials team from Vancouver was dispatched to work with other agencies and they were able to contain the remaining fuel, which moved quickly downstream from the spill site, in an area upstream of the Brilliant hydroelectric dam on the Kootenay River close to Castlegar.
While the evacuation wasn’t mandatory, emergency centres were set up in two schools in Nelson, and another in Slocan City and about 580 people checked in.
Almost all of the tanker load — 35,000 litres — spilled in the creek. The driver suffered minor injuries, but no area residents had reported medical concerns related to the spill.
Wayne Smook, senior vice-president of airport services for the truck owner, Calgary-based Executive Flight Centre, said he hadn’t spoken to the driver but understood that the truck rolled when the shoulder of the road collapsed. He said the accident occurred between 1 and 2 p.m., and the driver had to walk several kilometres down the gravel road to seek help.
The company sent one crew to the scene Friday night and another was en route Saturday.
“The focus now is on containment and clean-up,” Smook said.
An official with B.C.’s Ministry of Environment said Executive Flight Centre would be responsible for cleaning up the fuel, which is known as Jet A1.
There were no reports of fish or wildlife affected, said Rick Wagner, incident commander for the provincial emergency response team. Wagner said 90 per cent of this type of fuel evaporates within a day or two. Ministry staff conducted ambient air testing upstream and downstream on Saturday.
“We had no detectable levels either of explosive gases or the gas-type compounds on our detectors, so we were quite confident that we didn’t have any more vapours in the area that were going to pose hazards,” Wagner said.
Environment ministry monitored the spill response.
Ulli Wolf, the emergency operations director for the Regional District of Central Kootenay, said the spill was “an unprecedented exercise, conducted in the dark hours of the night.”
But after one sleepless night, with the worst of things over, Wolf said officials were going to shut down emergency operations for the night Saturday, and reopen on Sunday morning.
Judy Derco, owner of the Lemon Creek Lodge, said a fireman came to warn them of the spill but she and her guests were not evacuated. A guest wedding unfolded on the scenic property on Saturday as planned.
“We’re just concerned about our water quality now,” she said.Report Typo/Error