Gasoline Fire Ravages Peace River
A RUNAWAY gasoline trailer-tank rolled over and burst into flame in the business heart of Peace River, Alberta, Canada, on Sunday, September 30, bringing destruction to a block of buildings. Included were 12 business establishments, a theater and several apartments.
Events leading up to the catastrophe began at approximately 6:30 p.m., when a trucker stopped at the top of a long hill leading into town to check his brakes and tires before starting the 2-mile drive into the valley of the Peace. The hill winds down the valley, ending at an intersection with the main street of Peace River, the street being more or less at right angles to the highway.
Power and brakes fail
On this particular afternoon, the trucker was operating a 1962 tractor pulling a semitrailer carrying 4,250 gallons of aviation gasoline from the Imperial Refineries at Edmonton to Peace River. He had stopped at the top of the hill where a big sign warns truckers “Steep Hill, Trucks Use Lower Gear.” Following the check of his equipment, the driver released his brakes and started down the hill in what the truckers call “fourth over.” As the weight of the tanker caused the vehicle to pick up speed, the driver shifted down to “fourth” gear. He then attempted to shift into “third” gear, but found that the truck motor had stalled and he could not engage the transmission. As a result, it became necessary to rely entirely on his brakes to hold this large vehicle on a very steep grade. The truck picked up speed, and while only half way down the hill, the brakes dynamited, but still the truck rolled on without slackening speed.
The driver managed to keep the vehicle under partial control as it rolled to the bottom of the hill, where a “stop” sign indicates the entrance to the main street of Peace River town, this being more or less a dead end. Still unable to stop, the driver realized that he was going to have to try to make a turn into the main street of town in an attempt to gain control of the vehicle before he reached the other end of main street, where a service station stood blocking further progress.
As he reached the “stop” sign a small pickup truck in front of the big vehicle stopped. The driver swerved around this obstacle and then attempted to turn left into the main street. The big truck partially made the turn, then the trailer began to skid sideways as it turned into the street, striking the rear of a parked car on the north side of the street. The tanker then rolled, spewing gasoline into the street and over nearby buildings.
The spill immediately ignited, turning a theater, which was closest to the accident, into a mass of flames. Somehow the driver managed to escape the vehicle with only minor bruises, but the whole block of buildings including 12 business establishments were enveloped in burning gasoline and completely destroyed.
There was a downhill slope from the “roll-over” point of the vehicle to the main business portion of the town, but fortunately between the truck and the rest of the business district ran a small creek which carries the heavy spring run from the surrounding hills. This creek has been cemented-in to make a canal about 15 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The town fathers had provided storm sewers on the main street leading into this canal, and much of the burning gas ran harmlessly into the sewers and down the canal to the river. This diverted a great deal of flaming liquid which otherwise could have consumed much greater areas of the town.
The fire department was immediately summoned and on the scene within a matter of minutes under Volunteer Chief R. T. Miller. There was no delay in getting the equipment to the scene of the fire as the fire hall is directly across the canal. Immediately a call was placed to surrounding towns for assistance in anticipation of the spread of fire to the main business district. The response was excellent, and soon five pieces of apparatus were on hand to battle the blaze which was brought under control very quickly, and confined to those buildings which were originally involved. Additional equipment continued to pour in even after the fire was under control. In all, some 12 towns and villages responded to the call for assistance from the Peace River Fire Department.
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It was mentioned at the beginning that this happened on a Sunday afternoon, which was fortunate since any other day of the week would have created quite a different picture. At the time the theaters and all the stores were empty and locked, with a few people living over some of the stores who managed to escape with minor burns from the river of flames that enveloped their homes.
Now a long-needed “switch-back” road is being completed by the department of highways, therefore the possibility of a recurrence of this event is unlikely in Peace River. In outlining the facts surrounding this particular incident, it is felt that similar mishaps could occur in many communities throughout North America and perhaps next time people won’t be quite so fortunate. It is suggested that fire departments in both nations start now to plan their attack on such a fire because it is sure to happen again. Even though there may not be a hill as in Peace River, there is always the possibility that one of these vehicles may become involved in an accident in the middle of a town and a similar tragedy result. The fire loss in this incident will run to about $500,000. The fortunate thing is that there were no fatalities.