Ucluelet’s downtown core was evacuated last Wednesday because of an ammonia leak.
Ucluelet Mayor Bill Irving was in the district office around 11:30 a.m. when Ucluelet Harbour Seafoods contacted the district’s emergency services manager Karla Robison to advise an ammonia leak had occurred at the company’s Cedar Street facility. As was reported during the Westerly’s online coverage of the event, the fish plant uses the gas in its processing. “We were informed immediately and responded within minutes,” Irving said.
He said communication is “huge” in an emergency situation and was thrilled with how quickly Robison sprang into action to get the district’s emergency response rolling. “The advantage is having a laid out clear emergency response plan so everybody knows who they have to communicate with, and when and how, and what actions to take as priorities,” Irving said.
“You don’t have to make it up as you go, you already know what has to happen and everybody just kicks into gear.”
Ucluelet’s fire chief Ted Eeftink took the lead and, after assessing the extent of the ammonia leak, called for an evacuation of Ucluelet’s downtown core.
Eeftink’s fire crew was joined by RCMP and the district’s public works team to evacuate the area surrounding Ucluelet’s district office, Ucluelet Aquarium and Ukee Dogs with road blocks set up to prevent anyone from entering the danger zone.
“The call was made to be very conservative and be overly cautious rather than underly cautious,” Irving said.
“Generally public works isn’t called in right off the top because they don’t have that emergency training per se, but because it was the middle of the day and everybody was busy we needed people there right away and they were available.”
The RCMP and the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue- formerly known as the Coast Guard Auxiliary-hit the water to keep kayakers and boaters out of the nearby harbour.
Irving thanked the community for its cooperation during the evacuation.
“We would like to extend our thanks to the businesses and organizations in the area; when they were asked to close down and vacate they acted very quickly and we very much need that kind of cooperation and appreciate it,” he said.
UHS closed off the leak within an hour and a half of it occurring but downtown access was restricted for an extra hour to ensure no ammonia risk was lurking, according to Irving, who added ammonia is a heavy gas that lays low.
Ammonia vapour in the air is flammable and may cause an explosion if ignited and breathing in the gas may result in eye irritation, headache, confusion and burns to the mouth and throat, according to the Health Protection Agency.
“We were extra cautious,” Irving said. “From the district’s perspective we’re very satisfied that there’s no residual ammonia.”
He commended UHS for making the district aware of the situation and putting a stop to the leak in short order.
“That’s their responsibility and they, I think, dealt with it reasonably quickly,” Irving said. “We very much appreciated, from our perspective, the plant’s responsibility there.”
He said ammonia leaks are not common in Ucluelet and the district will be paying close attention to follow up reports.
“In the 30 years I’ve been here I can only recall two other incidents that have occurred so it’s very rare,” he said. “WorkSafe(BC) will follow up and the different provincial (and) federal agencies will follow up and we’ll be part of that review so that we can be aware of issues and know how to respond even better in the future.”
When the event concluded and downtown reopened the district’s emergency response team debriefed at the Fire Hall.
“There’s a real appreciation of the quick response and responsible attitude and there’s also an understanding that there’s a few things we can do better,” Irving said.
“In this case it was pretty sharp but you always feel you can tighten things up a little bit…It was an excellent response from our crew in the middle of a busy day.”
With nation-wide media outlets reporting on the event Irving was proud of the way his team performed in the spotlight. “These kind of incidents do get a lot of media profile and I think it’s reassuring for the public to see the whole process unfold,” he said. “It gives them some confidence that there is a process in place to take care of these kind of things.”