UPDATED 7/1/15: Watch the full presentation below.
Denis Lauzon thought he was responding to a house fire. It was anything but.
When Lauzon, chief of the Lac-Megantic Fire Department in Quebec, left his home in the early morning hours of July 6, 2013, to respond to a fire in the town’s center, he encountered what he described as an enormous “wall of flame.” A runaway train transporting more than 2 million gallons of crude oil had just derailed, and dozens of tank cars had piled up and exploded, instantly destroying part of downtown and sending a nightmarish river of burning oil through the town’s streets and into the neighboring lake. The incident killed 47 people, resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage, and became the worst environmental disaster in Quebec’s history.
Lauzon’s story was part of Wednesday’s featured presentation at NFPA’s Conference & Expo.
Lauzon’s co-presenter, J. Gordon Routley, chief of the Montreal Fire Department, provided an overview of crude oil transport—most of which is conducted via rail—in the U.S. and Canada, which has increased dramatically in recent years as crude oil production has surged. Nine major incidents involving derailments and fire have occurred since 2013, Routley said. NFPA’s Standards Council is considering a new standard that would address incident response at accidents involving trains carrying crude oil and other highly flammable materials.
Lauzon outlined the numerous response challenges faced by his volunteer department, from the logistics of handling a large evacuation to interoperability issues like hose line compatibility. His presentation included photographs and video that captured the scale and ferocity of the fire; among his details was the phenomenon of manhole covers blowing into the sky “like flying saucers” as the burning oil shot through the town’s sewer system. Eventually about 80 fire departments from Canada, as well as eight from Maine, responded to Lac-Megantic. “It’s not if, but when,” Lauzon said of the likelihood of more crude-oil derailments and fires.
To close, he played a video clip of the fire, shot from the lake: a hellish mass of flame and smoke that produced a steady roar. “Now it’s your turn,” he told the audience. “Make your own decisions.”