About a dozen workers were injured after a "flash fire" burst out from an Alberta natural gas well owned by Husky Energy Inc.
RCMP reported that 12 workers were hurt, with two evacuated to hospital by helicopter. Officials with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety said the number may be closer to eight, although investigators were to arrive on site Monday afternoon to determine exact specifics. No deaths have been reported, although three people were sent to an Edmonton burn unit.
A "flash fire" is described as a blaze that suddenly erupts and then subsides.
Early reports suggest the fire erupted during a well "fraccing" operation, said health and safety spokesman Barrie Harrison. Companies use underground fracturing to break apart dense rock so that hydrocarbons can flow through and be collected at the surface. The practice has, however, stoked massive controversy in the U.S., where landowners have blamed fraccing for destroying well-water and fouling rivers used as a source of drinking water.
The fire took place at a well near Robb, Alta. Financial analysts suggested it appears to be in the foothills region, where companies produce gas from deep, highly pressured reservoirs.
Graham White, a spokesman with Husky, confirmed the well belonged to the oil and gas corporation. It is under control.
"The fire is extinguished," Mr. White said. "There were several contract employees who were working on the well site that were involved. Our initial reports are that their injuries are non life-threatening. We don't have any confirmation in terms of numbers yet."
The fire broke out between 11 a.m. and noon MST Monday. RCMP received a 911 call reporting an explosion at 11:45 a.m.
Bob Curran, a spokesman with the Energy Resources Conservation Board, said the fire burst out as workers were setting up to begin the underground fraccing. Mr. Curran said the well was to be fractured using propane, a technique that has already injured three other workers this year.
In January, Gasfrac Energy Services Inc. said a propane leak at one of its work sites created a "short fire." The company suspended all operations for more than two weeks as it sought to figure out what went wrong.
Gasfrac was preparing to conduct a propane fracture at the Husky well site Monday afternoon, company chief financial officer James Hill confirmed in an interview. But he said the fire appeared to emanate from the well rather than Gasfrac equipment, which had not yet begun operations. It is "not at all possible" that the explosion came from a similar cause as the January accident, he said.
"Those wells have various types of liquids in them that include propane," he said.
Seven Gasfrac employees were among those injured and taken to hospital.
But as of Monday afternoon, "they've been released," Mr. Hill said. "It was sort of minor lacerations that they had received."
The fire is the second major well incident in Alberta in less than a week. On Friday, a sour oil well licensed to Daylight Energy Ltd. caught fire at 10:20 a.m. That blaze, which caused no injuries, continued until 3:30 a.m. Saturday.
Thomas Lukaszuk, minister of Employment and Immigration, called the Monday fire a "tragic" incident.
"At this point my thoughts are with them [the workers]and their families," he said, noting the province recently announced plans to boost the ranks of its occupational health and safety officers.
"When they [accidents]happen, the best we can do is respond to them properly, make sure there's justice for the workers, and that it doesn't happen again."
-with a file from Josh Wingrove