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Will increasing heat waves pose a risk to the tank farm?

As the planet heats up and climate change brings more extreme weather like this week’s heat wave, Burnaby’s fire chief says there could be an increasing risk of a storage tank fire on Burnaby Mountain.

BC experienced record-shattering high temperatures over the past couple of days, with Lytton seeing the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada on Sunday, at 46.6 C. That record was then expected to be broken again on Monday, with temperatures forecast to crack the 47 C mark in Fraser Canyon yesterday.

Heat waves like this one are only expected to become more common, CBC meteorologist Johanna Wagstaffe said over the weekend, and that kind of weather creates a tinderbox for wildfires.

Burnaby Fire Chief Chris Bowcock said the high temperatures may not directly increase the risk of a tank fire. The pipeline carries a “fairly wide range hydrocarbon”—bitumen that would evaporate into gas, and therefore be flammable, at a higher temperature mixed with a solvent that would turn to gas at a lower temperature.

That means there’s a component of the mixture that would be only a bit more flammable at 20 C than at 40 C, Bowcock said.

“The greatest risk at this time would be the greater risk of grass fires in and around that facility, the greater accumulation of heat on metal surfaces that could cause ignition sources,” he said. “Those are the greater concerns.”

With construction going on in the area, Bowcock said there are concerns that heavy machinery could spark a grass fire in the area—in fact, he said the fire department has responded to at least 1 grass fire on the Trans Mountain property.

A fire there, he said, could put the tanks at risk.

The tank farm edges on the Burnaby Mountain conservation area which is Burnaby’s largest natural area.

“There’s 2 different pieces. There’s 1 piece that that conservation area is at risk from fire events in the facility. And that facility is at risk from fire events in that wild space,” Bowcock said. “The risk goes both ways.”

And Burnaby Mountain is not exactly isolated from the city, meaning it could be at risk of human-caused wildland fires, whether it’s related to smoking or otherwise.

“The more we interface with the wildland areas, we definitely bring a higher risk of fire to those areas,” Bowcock said.

In an email statement to the Beacon, Trans Mountain pointed to its record of more than 65 years on Burnaby Mountain without a tank fire.

The company said it “acknowledges that, globally, we need to better understand the impacts of fossil fuel development on climate change and establish policies to minimize those impacts and improve environmental footprints.”

“As an operator of an extensive pipeline system, Trans Mountain takes the risk of wildfire very seriously, and we’re prepared for a wide variety of potential wildfire scenarios,” the Crown corporation said, adding that it has procedures, training and equipment in place to address the issue.

“We also regularly collaborate on training exercises and proactive assessment of wildfire risks with local, provincial, and state agencies as well as Indigenous communities.”

Trans Mountain said it also follows recommendations from the BC government’s FireSmart brochure for reducing wildfire risk on their property, including limiting dry foliage in the area.

“Trans Mountain facility sites have large, graveled areas of fire break and adhere to rigorous standards of FireSmart principles to reduce the possibility of a wildfire impacting a Trans Mountain facility,” Trans Mountain said. “While preventative measures are the best option for reducing the impact of a wildfire, Trans Mountain also maintains several wildfire equipment trailers to help protect our facilities, and caches of equipment in areas of increased risk.”

That includes mobile trailers equipped with a water tank, hoses, pumps, foam, gel, and other firefighting tools, as well as units around the tank farm that help to keep the area wet to reduce the risk of fire, as well as the ability to apply fire resistant foam and gel.

Still, Bowcock said the fire department is in the planning stage of looking at a fire hall in the area to allow the department to respond to potential fires both in the increasing population and the growing tank farm. That, he said, is something the community wants to be paid for by the federal government.

“What was explained to many of us citizens is that that facility is in the national interest, which is why the facility moved forward with this development,” Bowcock said.

And if the facility is in the national interest, to the chagrin of local residents, Bowcock said he’s heard from residents that the costs of the increased risks should be borne nationally.