VANCOUVER — A chemical fire at a Vancouver container terminal led to a partial evacuation of Canada’s largest port for several hours Wednesday afternoon, as a cloud of white smoke drifting over the city prompted health warnings and road closures.
About 65 firefighters, including crews from two fire boats and hazardous materials teams, battled the blaze at one point, surrounding the flames even from above with three pieces of aerial equipment that were 33-metres tall, said Ron Coulson of Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.
A large cloud of white smoke could be seen lifting off a collection of multicoloured shipping containers. Streams of water blasted from fire hoses into the smoke, which obscured any sign of the fire itself.
The city said the fire had died down to about one third of its initial size by Thursday morning, but smoke continued to billow, and about 30 firefighters remained on site to monitor air quality.
The city’s health authority confirmed the fire involved a substance called trichloroisocyanuric acid, which can be harmful if inhaled in large quantities and can cause eye irritation.
A listing on a federal government website says trichloroisocyanuric acid is used in dry household bleaches, dishwashing compounds, swimming pool disinfectant and other cleaning agents.
“There are no injuries at this time,” said Coulson. “As this is a defensive fire, our firefighters are taking all precautions to stay out of the smoke plume and wear all the respiratory equipment that we have at our disposal.”
Coulson said firefighters set up an evacuation perimeter of about 800 metres and asked people in the area to stay back.
By early evening, the city issued a bulletin lifting an earlier order from the fire chief for residents in one neighbourhood to seek shelter.
While smoke was lessening, the city asked people to stay away from the area where the fire broke out, and if they were experiencing breathing problems to get upwind.
“Anyone experiencing shortness of breath or difficulty breathing should see a physician right away,” stated the bulletin.
Port Metro Vancouver spokesman John Parker-Jervis said in a statement that the organization confirmed at 1:40 p.m. that a container was on fire at the Centerm terminal on the south shore of Burrard Inlet.
He said the terminal was shut down and evacuated.
“Our primary concern is the safety of first responders, the public and all port workers. The Centerm container terminal and nearby port properties have been evacuated,” the statement said.
“All south shore of the Burrard inlet port operations have been shut down, including rail and truck access.”
Eric Chibana who works in the neighbourhood said he could smell the smoke inside his building and at first it smelled liked rubber but then changed. He said the air was hazy outside.
“You know, you can barely make out the vehicle across the street,” he said.
Translink, which runs the area’s public transit system, cancelled at least one departure of the West Coast Express commuter train, which links downtown Vancouver with suburban communities east of the city, including Pitt Meadows, Maple Ridge and Mission.
E-Comm, which operates the region’s 911 system, posted a message on Twitter asking people not to call 911 for updates about the fire.