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The fire from a pipeline that ruptured and sparked a massive fire north of Prince George, B.C., is shown in this submitted photo.

Dhruv Desai /The Canadian Press

The company that distributes natural gas to homes around British Columbia is urging its customers to conserve after an explosion and fire on the pipeline that supplies most of the natural gas handled by Fortis BC.

The blast Tuesday shut down the Enbridge natural gas pipeline about 15 kilometres northeast of Prince George.

Doug Stout, Fortis BC vice-president of external relations, said Wednesday that 85 per cent of the gas his company feeds to homes and businesses is carried by the twinned pipeline that runs from northern B.C. to the United States border south of Vancouver.

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One of the two lines ruptured and exploded but the second line is also shut while it’s being checked for damage, said Stout, prompting Fortis to warn of “decreased energy flow and potential loss of service.”

“Turn down your thermostat if you are in a cold spot. Turn off your furnace if you can, if you are in Vancouver or a situation where you can do that. Minimize the use of hot water if you have a natural gas hot water tank … so we preserve the gas we have for as long as possible,” said Stout.

As many as 700,000 customers in northern B.C., the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island could be directly affected by a shortage, he said.

Stout urged another 300,000 customers in the Okanagan and southeastern B.C., to conserve even though their natural gas comes from Alberta.

“We are asking them to cut back, too, because we can flow some of that gas past them and down here to the Lower Mainland. So we are asking everybody to chip in,” said Stout.

The problems have the potential to flow south of the border.

The damaged Enbridge pipeline connects to the Northwest Pipeline system which feeds Puget Sound Energy in Washington State and Northwest Natural Gas in Portland.

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Puget Sound Energy had already issued a notice on social media urging its 750,000 natural gas customers to lower their thermostats and limit hot water use at least through Wednesday, a warning Stout seconded.

“There is a potential impact on Seattle and north of Seattle,” he said.

Currently Fortis has reserves still in the pipeline south of Prince George, in its liquefied natural gas storage tanks in the Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island, and there is some gas flowing from Alberta through a pipeline in southern B.C., Stout said.

Fortis expected to receive updates on the situation as Transportation Safety Board investigators and National Energy Board inspectors arrived to assess the damage and attempt to determine a cause.

The company will update its customers as soon as it is in a position to offer something new, said Stout.

No one was hurt when the fireball lit up the sky near the community of Shelley, and forced about 100 members of the nearby Lheidli T’enneh First Nation from their homes.

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An evacuation order had been downgraded Wednesday to the handful of homes near the explosion site.

Witness Terry Teegee said the blast shook the area at about 5:30 p.m.

“We thought it might have been a train crash or a low-flying jet,” he said.

Zachary Semotiuk said he saw a “huge flash,” followed by a “raging fire,” that was easily visible above the treeline from several kilometres away.

Chief Dominic Frederick with the Lheidli T’enneh First Nation said Enbridge contacted him shortly after the blast.

“They had told me there was a gas building up in the underground. For some reason or another the gas had stopped flowing and it built up and it just exploded,” Frederick said.

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The Enbridge website describes its nearly 2,900 kilometre natural gas pipeline as capable of “transporting approximately 55 per cent of the gas produced in the province,” and “the backbone of B.C.’s natural gas industry since 1957.”

With files from CKPG

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