A pair of wildfires discovered in northeast British Columbia early this July haven’t been much trouble for the nearby community of Fort Nelson, but they have been an issue for those working in the oil and gas industry in that region.
The Pesh Fire, which was discovered near Suhm Creek on July 5, measured 4856 hectares as of July 17, an area similar to its original size. It had grown to an estimated 5500 hectares by July 22.
Another fire located about twenty kilometres southwest of Kotcho Lake was found on July 11. It was estimated at about 1800 hectares on July 21 after a few days of rain.
Lightning is thought to be the cause of both fires.
“The wind’s been really light in the area,” said Jillian Chimko, fire information officer with the Prince George Fire Centre, during a July 17 interview.
That explained the slow growth of the fires.
“It looks like things have been a little bit more slow moving up there than they were in the initial stages,” she added.
As of July 22, neither wildfire was being suppressed, but they were being monitored on a daily basis by a fire behavior specialist.
Although neither fire posed a threat to the local communities, concerns over the potential impacts on oil and gas industry workers prompted the BC Oil and Gas Commission (OGC) to release a safety bulletin concerning the wildfires on July 13.
“The objective is to keep industry apprised of what the status of the fires are and whether or not they directly or indirectly impact them,” said Mike Burzek, director of emergency response and safety at the OGC.
“And then, as far as some of the mitigation, really, a lot of things like ensuring that combustible materials or anything that’s absolutely not necessary [is] removed. In some cases, they might have to water down the area around their activities. And really it’s all about the preplanning for emergency evacuations of their personnel in case fires do flare up.”
OGC was participating in daily conference calls involving the Prince George Fire Centre and other stakeholders such as oil and gas companies operating in the area.
“We just basically talk to their supervisors and they pass [the information] along,” said Chimko.
“Every day, we send them maps, outlines. We have a fire behaviour specialist up there who maps the fire and where he thinks it’s going to go based on forecasts. And they’ll send them those maps.
“And they have an evacuation plan made, if ever needed. If a fire reaches a certain trigger point, they say, ‘Okay, it’s time to pull out.’”
Burzek explained that companies were constantly assessing the situation if they did have facilities such as well sites or compressor stations near the path of the wildfire.
“They’ll take the necessary measures such as shutting in their wells and compressor stations,” he said.
“If it gets really bad,” he continued, “then they would have to shut in things like a gas plant. Typically, they don’t need to because they’ve already done hazard abatements in and around their facilities.
“Some of the things that we’re concerned more about are the traffic up and down the roads and the potential for other fires to be started from their activities. So, really looking at restricting work activities to the bare minimum.”
Burzek noted on July 17 that there was a pair of natural gas processing plants in the vicinity of the fires, but neither was closer than about five kilometers.
“There’s no immediate threat,” he said, “but if the winds were to change directions from the north – right now, we’re predominantly getting southwesterlies – but if we were to get some northeast winds, that would shift the head of the fires to the south, then we could be potentially looking at more serious impacts.”
Burzek also said that the operations of eight permit holders were slightly impacted by the wildfires.
“There is a drilling rig that’s active in one of those areas,” he said. “And so we probably have approximately 150 personnel between those two areas that are potentially impacted.”
The biggest issue was poor air quality.
“The smoke is definitely a health impact and a concern,” said Burzek.
At the time, there was no way of knowing how long those two wildfires could be an issue for energy sector activities.
“The fire hazard is extreme,” said Burzek, discussing the hot, dry conditions that had prevailed in the northeast during the early part of the summer.
“It’s some of the driest conditions they’ve had on record,” he added.
So, the possibility of additional fires has been a lingering concern.
“Be diligent out there,” Burzek cautioned. “If you’re working in the field and you see a wildfire, lightning strike, anything like that, you see smoke, please phone it in to the fire centre.”