Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Heavy snow falling off roof onto propane line caused Cape Breton seniors home blast

By Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press   

Headlines News winter firefighting

Fire inspectors with the provincial department of Fire Marshal’s office were on scene to determine the cause of a gas explosion at the Silver Birch Manor seniors apartments Sydney, N.S. on Feb. 10. The acting fire chief in the Cape Breton Regional Municipality said an explosion that damaged a seniors residence and seriously injured one person late Friday afternoon was likely caused by snow sliding off a roof and damaging a propane tank line. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Vaughan Merchant

Feb. 10, 2024, Cape Breton, N.S. – An explosion that blew a hole in a seniors residence and seriously injured one person was linked Saturday to the massive storm that brought 150 centimetres of wet, heavy snow to Cape Breton’s largest municipality last weekend.

Chris March, acting fire chief of the Cape Breton Regional Municipality, said in an interview that it’s believed slabs of snow slid from the roof of the Silver Birch Manor in Sydney, N.S., and fell on fuel lines connected to three propane tanks alongside the building — which were linked to a backup generator.

March said as the propane spread officials believe it encountered a source of ignition in the publicly owned building, setting off the blast and injuring the resident.

“The snow is very heavy, and we’ve had mild temperatures since the storm and it’s melting, which makes it even heavier,” said the firefighter.

Photographs indicate the window of the room next to the explosion was blown away, leaving a large hole in the building, which is owned by the province’s housing authority.

A spokeswoman for the Nova Scotia Provincial Housing Agency, which manages the building, said 59 people were evacuated, and 45 are currently in a hotel, while the remainder are staying with their family.

“This was a frightening event on top of an already difficult week for Cape Breton,” wrote Kelli MacDonald, in an email sent Saturday. She added the agency is working on relocating the residents, while it is providing meals and access to other necessities.

March said he remains concerned by the threats created from the accumulation of snow, which still is being shovelled from pathways and cleared from the municipalities’ streets and homes.

“Yesterday was our fourth case involving propane lines. Certainly, the other three previous incidents during the week weren’t so serious. But they’re all the same: Snow comes off a roof, lands on the fuel connection and creates damage that could cause a leak,” said the fire chief.

Doug MacKenzie, the provincial fire marshal, said in an interview Saturday that it appears the propane tanks and lines were within the regulated distance of the building, but said the volume of the snow involved was unprecedented.

“This is an unusual amount of snow to have fallen, and we have solar panels which act like a metal roof to cause large amounts of snow to slide off,” he said.

Premier Tim Houston, who was attending the party’s annual general meeting in Halifax, said in an interview Saturday that while street clearing continues to be a priority in the cleanup, “the next stage” is to deal with the snow on roofs.

“The assessment of the snow on roofs is ongoing. We’ve mobilized people to make sure we’re assessing provincial infrastructure and buildings. We’ve asked municipalities to do that as well,” he said.

The premier’s office later said in an email that 40 additional search and rescue personnel from New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island were on the way to Cape Breton Saturday to assist. The office also said there were 10 more members of Team Rubicon, an international organization offering disaster assistance, on their way to Cape Breton Regional Municipality, with a disaster mapping specialist coming as part of the team.

MacKenzie said that while his report won’t make recommendations, its findings on the cause of the accident will be relevant to future reviews of rules on how much distance must exist between fuel tanks and buildings.

“On a go forward basis, we’ll probably be looking at what needs to be done to provide additional protection,” he said.

However, March said in the short term, first responders are remaining alert to the possibility of more sliding snow, as temperatures warmed over the weekend.

“We’re expected to get another storm on top of some snow we had Wednesday, so that could cause additional problems,” he said.

March also said he’s eager to see the massive snow banks gradually removed and roads widened.

“More apparatus to help us clear the snow out of here is the biggest thing we need and some boots on the ground, as I’m sure there are certain structures that should have the snow cleared from their roofs, especially health and seniors homes,” said March.

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