Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blast lights up morning sky

Gas explosion leaves several communities without power

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press
The RCMP set up road blocks at all  the roads leading into Otterburne.

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Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press The RCMP set up road blocks at all the roads leading into Otterburne.

When a fireball and explosion jolted Eveline Wiebe awake early Saturday morning, she wondered if the apocalypse was upon her.

"Wow, is this the end of the world?" she said from her farmhouse near Otterburne, located about 60 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

It was not the end of the world, but it could temporarily be the end of heat for several thousand people in southern Manitoba who have been told they'll be without natural gas service for up to several days after the explosion and fire at a TransCanada Pipelines valve site near St. Pierre-Jolys.

The flames were out by Saturday afternoon and there were no reported injuries.

Manitoba Hydro said in order to repair the line, TransCanada shut off its supply of natural gas for several municipalities affecting approximately 4,000 people.

Wiebe, a mother of four young children, quickly roused her husband, Feterly, and while they were taking in the spectacle from their kitchen window, the power went out.

"I was half-asleep but I was in shock. When my husband looked out the window, he was in shock, too," she said, noting her kids -- Debby, 7, Anndy, 6, Tommy, 4, and Larry 2 -- slept through the whole ordeal.

"It reminded me a massive butane torch, just huge and intense. It was hissing. You could tell there was some serious fuel behind it. There was no crackling and popping that you'd hear in a normal fire."

They tried calling 911 but got a busy signal and when they rang the police, nobody answered.

They wondered whether they should prepare to evacuate but once police cruisers were spotted on the highway, they decided to stay put until they got a knock on the door. They didn't.

While his wife grabbed her camera and started snapping a few pictures, Feterly Wiebe quickly ran out to his barn to start his generator so he could keep his 9,000 chickens warm.

"If the barn goes cold, we would have had mortality with the birds," he said.

Residents of five houses within the fire's vicinity that were evacuated were allowed to return home Saturday night. In a media release Saturday night, RCMP said the explosion was "not suspicious in nature" and for them the matter is concluded.

A Manitoba Hydro spokesperson said the affected pipeline is one of two that supplies natural gas to the area but both have been shut off so that repairs can be done.

The RMs of Hanover, Ritchot and De Salaberry are now without natural gas.

Hydro is advising customers to prepare for gas outage of a minimum of one day.

"No estimate for the resumption of supply has been received from (TransCanada)," said spokesman Scott Powell.

Jason Thompson, an insurance broker in Niverville, was awakened by his wife right after the fire broke out. At first, he thought it was a house fire a block or two over because it was so bright.

"It turned out to be a few miles away," he said.

He thought the Precision Produce greenhouse that had caught fire a year ago and suffered $6-million in damage was again ablaze, so he set off with his camera. As he drove down a gravel road towards the fire, he was tempted to put on his sunglasses to shield his eyes.

"It reminded me a massive butane torch, just huge and intense. It was hissing. You could tell there was some serious fuel behind it. There was no crackling and popping that you'd hear in a normal fire," he said.

The roads into town were blocked off at the highway by RCMP cruisers. An officer said a command post had been set up in town but the roads wouldn't be opened up until the fire commissioner had determined the area was safe.

Myron Dyck, a spokesman for the Town of Niverville, said people in the region use either gas and gas or electricity to heat their homes.

"We have contingency plans in place should this be for a greater time period," Dyck said when asked about what actions the town might take to assist residents without heat.

In the Rural Municipality of Hanover, a warming centre was being set up in a local church.

"For those who feel the need to leave their homes, we urge people to stay with friends or family with an alternative heat source," Hanover Emergency Coordinator Denis Vassart said on the community's website.

TransCanada said it shut down the Emerson Lateral portion of the Canadian Mainline natural gas pipeline system due to the explosion and vented the remaining gas. It said trucks containing compressed natural gas were being sent to metering stations to provide gas to some critical services such as personal care homes and hospitals, as well as schools or churches being used as emergency warming centres.

TransCanada said in a news release that was working with Manitoba Hydro to restore regular natural gas service as quickly as possible.

Niverville Deputy Mayor John Funk said in a statement on the town's website that depending on the extent of the repairs, service is expected to be lost for minimum of 24 hours to multiple days.

Funk said Manitoba Hydro is asking residents to turn down thermostats and minimize use of electric heaters. He also urged caution when using all types of space heaters, and warned people not to use barbecues or any other unapproved heaters indoors that might produce carbon monoxide.

 

-- With files from The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 A3

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