Locomotive fire ‘tricky’ to extinguish

Smoke rises from a derailed locomotive January 22

Knocking down a locomotive fire at a train derailment on Highway 11 yesterday was challenging, according to Warman Fire Chief Russ Austin.

“The train wreck was cutting the highway in two, and Saskatoon Fire couldn’t access the cars that were on fire on the north end,” said Austin in an interview at the Warman Fire Hall shortly after the fire was extinguished.

The derailment occurred in Saskatoon Fire Department’s coverage area, but Warman Fire Rescue was called in to help because they had clear access to the opposite side of the wreck.

A tangled mass of metal and spilled grain blocked the northbound lanes of Highway 11 near Wanuskewin Road following a CN train derailment January 22

“We responded with our compressed air foam water and a tanker, and immediately called for tanker support from Dalmeny and Martensville,” said Austin.

The CN locomotive that was on fire was difficult to access because grain cars were impacted tightly against it.

Austin said the fire was inside the locomotive’s engine.

After checking for potential leaks of diesel and other hazardous materials from the locomotive’s fuel tanks, firefighters worked to cool the tanks to prevent any explosion.

Firefighters were eventually able to gain access to the fire by going “compartment by compartment” through panels on the outside of the locomotive.

“There was a lot of smoke and flames,” confirmed Austin. “It was a really tricky fire to fight just because of the sheer size of the locomotive and the small size of the access panels that go all the way around the outside.”

Once the fire was initially knocked down, several Saskatoon firefighters and a CN tank car specialist were able to make their way to the side of the wreck where the Warman firefighters were.

“They made entry into the train and made sure the fuel was shut off and the main batteries were shut off, because those specialists know exactly where the switches are located,” said Austin. “They de-energized the unit and cut off the fuel. After that between Saskatoon, Warman and Martensville firefighters, we were able to extinguish the fire.

An aerial view of the derailment at the CN Rail level crossing on Highway 11 (Saskatoon Police Photo – Facebook)

“Then we turned over command of our sector to Saskatoon Fire, which had overall command of the derailment scene. They did an excellent job.”

He said all the fire departments worked well together thanks to good communications.

Austin noted that while this was the first major derailment Warman Fire Rescue has had to deal with in many years, they were well-prepared.

“We actually had an Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) tabletop practice at the Warman Fire Hall a few days earlier featuring a derailment scenario,” he said. “We also have quite a few firefighters in our region who’ve had specialized training at a facility near Pueblo, Colorado. CN Rail sponsors the training courses that focus on fighting tanker car fires and spills.”

Austin said the January 22 grain train derailment, bad as it was, could have been a lot worse.

“Nobody on the highway near the scene was hurt, and there were no hazardous materials,” said Austin. “The train itself was remotely-operated. There was no one on the train itself.”

He said when WFR got the call, they weren’t sure what to expect.

“The big sigh of relief came when we saw the grain all over the ground. Had it been any type of hazardous material, we would have been doing our assessment at a safe distance, about a kilometer away from the scene, depending on what was involved, instead of right on the highway close to the fire.”

While the investigation into the cause of the crash will take some time, the Transportation Safety Board gave CN the green light to begin cleaning up the site a few hours after the derailment. Austin said the railway is motivated to get things back on track quickly. “It’s costing CN about a million dollars an hour in downtime,” he said.