40 years ago: Firefighter recalls explosion that rocked Mill Woods

Barry Lamb was a rookie firefighter when an excavator nicked a high-pressure pipeline in Mill Woods, prompting a gas leak, an explosion and the eventual evacuation of 19,000 people from the burgeoning Edmonton neighbourhood.

'I don't think they realized how fast and far it was spreading and how quickly it was moving'

A fire smoulders in Mill Woods on March 2, 1979, after a gas line was hit, prompting thousands to be evacuated. (CBC/Archive)

Barry Lamb was a rookie firefighter when an excavator nicked a high-pressure pipeline in Mill Woods, prompting a gas leak, an explosion and the eventual evacuation of 19,000 people from the burgeoning Edmonton neighbourhood.

The 40th anniversary of the March 2, 1979 Mill Woods evacuation is Saturday and Lamb — who went on to become the city's deputy fire chief — will be speaking at a commemorative event at the community's library.

Meanwhile, an advocacy group is pushing for provincial legislation it says will make digging close to utility networks safer, and to possibly prevent the type of near-catastrophe that transpired that March afternoon in 1979.

Watch: The original news report on the explosion from March 2, 1979

From the archives: Mill Woods gas explosion

3 years ago
Duration 1:42
On March 2, 1979, a gas explosion causes more than 15,000 people to be evacuated from the Edmonton neighbourhood. 1:42

At the time, construction was booming in the neighbourhood of Mill Woods. An excavator hit a high-pressure propane gas pipeline, starting a chain of events that had city-wide reverberations.

The pipeline caused a mist of propane vapour to fill the air. Then, by chance, a delivery truck in the area produced some sparks, which ignited the vapour, causing an explosion. Truck driver Peter Clark was severely burned. 

"We soon realized the propane was leaking into the sewers and people's toilets weren't flowing up but the lids were blowing off and manhole covers were blowing up and off the road. We soon figured out the sewers were filling up and spreading west," remembers Lamb.

"When I look back, I don't think they realized how fast and how far it was spreading and how quickly it was moving."

'To be alive is a gift'

3 years ago
Duration 2:09
A survivor of an explosion in Mill Woods 40 years ago recalls the day that changed his life, and the support he's received since. 2:09

At the time, Mill Woods was still a neighbourhood under construction. Lamb was stationed at Mill Woods Fire Station No. 16.

"It was really new then," he said. "It was out in the boonies, we thought."
Barry Lamb was Edmonton's deputy fire chief when this photo was taken in 2015. (CBC)

To complicate matters, other contractors in the area were trying to "pre-thaw" the ground for spring construction by burning straw and coal.

"We spent the night going from hydrant to hydrant, extinguishing those frost burning piles for the construction," Lamb said. "We drowned 'em, making sure there was no ignition source. As a rookie, that's what I did all night was putting out those fires."

The eventual evacuation of 19,000 residents was, at the time, the largest Canadian peacetime evacuation of civilians.

Lamb thinks the city and emergency crews handled the emergency as well as they could have done in the circumstances. There were fewer and less sophisticated communications systems than exist today, such as the Emergency Operations Centre or the Provincial Operations Centre. There was also less direct knowledge of pipelines.

"Now we have better training and newer equipment," Lamb said. "But the biggest thing is education and prevention."

Calls for legislation

The Mill Woods evacuation kick-started the formation of Alberta One-Call, a non-profit organization that collects line location data from almost 800 members.

But not every company that operates utilities has to register with Alberta One-Call. And it's not legally mandated for everyone doing substantial digging to call for a "line locate" of infrastructure buried in the area.

Alberta One-Call is advocating for legislation that would change that, and met with a legislature committee this week to discuss it.

"It would provide a great level of certainty to anybody who is digging that they're not going to damage anything," said Mike Sullivan, president of Alberta One-Call.
Some are pushing for laws that would make it mandatory for diggers to call for utility location information before they dig. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

Legislative changes have made it mandatory for nationally and provincially monitored pipelines to register with Alberta One-Call, meaning their line locations are on file. But telecommunications lines get hit almost as often as natural gas lines.

A broken line can prevent small communities from having Internet access, credit card service, or phone calls to 911.

Alberta One-Call is meant to be the first point of contact for people who want to dig. The group is advocating for legislation that would mandate all companies to call before they dig and for all utility companies to register their lines with the service. 

"Right now pipelines in Alberta have to register with Alberta One-Call and people digging within 100 feet of those pipelines have to request a locate ... do they know that? Hopefully. I think the professional digging community will know that," Sullivan said.

"[With] legislation ... a person digging anywhere in the province will have to request a locate and effectively it will just decrease or reduces the risk that something like that will happen again."


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