Rural response

Laura King
March 26, 2014
Written by
A year ago, a resort and conference centre in Stanhope, P.E.I., burned to the ground. North Shore Fire Chief Bob Morrison described the scene, the challenges – including high winds – and the lessons learned to editor Laura King in an interview during the 2013 Maritime Fire Chiefs Association conference in Summerside last July.

For Morrison, a 17-year fire-service veteran who had been chief for two years, the priorities were protecting exposures – there were several buildings on the grounds – and preventing a large propane tank from exploding. 

Owners of the 85-room resort and 200-seat conference centre have put off rebuilding until 2015 while they focus on other properties. The resort was the island’s oldest hotel; it had first opened in 1855.

Here is Morrison’s story of the Stanhope Beach Resort fire and the response.

North Shore  
Firefighters from five stations – North Shore, Charlottetown Station 2, East River, North River and New Glasgow – fought a massive blaze at the Prince Edward Island resort in April 2013 that started in garden mulch and spread into a wooden building. Photos by Janice Burrows

 

On April 23, 2013, at 15:48 hours, we had a page from dispatch that there was a grass fire. At 15:52, we were re-paged and it was upgraded to a structure fire. In six minutes we responded with our first engine out the door. We are a volunteer department with 31 members and five apparatuses – one rescue, two engines and two tankers.

We were on scene at 16:02 – so that’s 14 minutes from page to on scene. We are about seven kilometres away, the North Shore Fire Department, from Stanhope.

Upon driving down the last kilometre and seeing the volume of smoke, I immediately radioed for mutual aid – before we even arrived on scene.

So we requested Charlottetown with a ladder, an engine and a tanker. Charlottetown is about 15 kilometres away.

We also requested our next nearest neighbour to respond with two tankers. That’s East River, and they’re about 20 kilometres away. I knew there was no water supply – no hydrants – so we were going to have to haul water. Within 18 more minutes, I upgraded for two more mutual-aid departments and requested North River and New Glasgow, and when I did my 360 as soon as I arrived on scene, I realized that with the full involvement of the fire in the attic and the winds gusting up to 80 kilometres an hour there was no way we could do an interior attack, that it was going to be purely defensive, and that we would protect whatever exposures we were going to try to defend.

We had a 2,500-gallon torpedo-style propane tank 15 feet away from the structure on one exposure, and we had a large building on the opposite side, about 18 feet away, and those were the two immediate risks that we decided to protect and just be defensive on the rest of the structure . . .

The staff were there to open it up for the season – there were no guests inside and that was a blessing, or we would have had serious, serious problems.

The temperature was 11 C; the winds were 40 to 50 kilometres an hour, gusting to 80, so we had high, high winds.

Also, when I called for mutual aid from New Glasgow and North River, I called Island EMS for an ambulance and paramedics to do rehab.

The RCMP and national park wardens – this property almost boundaries the Prince Edward Island National Park – so the park wardens helped control traffic, and we actually had to shut down some highways just to keep the volume of people from obstructing access.

It’s a historic building – part of the structure is more than 200 years old, so it’s a devastating loss for the community.

So when we were operational, we tasked certain departments with protecting certain exposures, and that’s basically what they focused on. We had water supply established with the national park and they were operational, but after about 100,000 gallons were transported their pumps failed, so we then switched to our cistern in our fire hall, which is 20,000 gallons – we have two six-inch pumps that can feed the tankers so we can load a tanker very rapidly, but 20,000 gallons doesn’t last very long. So while we were using that, I tasked Charlottetown to send an engine from the scene to go and draft from a nearby pond, so we established a drafting site and just as soon as they were set up we diverted from our hall to the drafting site.

In hindsight, we should have kept that drafting site going because when the park re-established pumping capacity, we discontinued the drafting site and the engine came back to the scene, and probably within 45 minutes of diverting back to the park, they lost their pumps permanently and we had to re-establish drafting again. They had some computer problems with the pumping system at the park; there’s a historic landmark – the Dalvay Hotel – and it’s all sprinklered. It’s within the national park boundary, and there’s a hydrant system within the compound (the national park has its compound for maintenance for the wardens and administration) – that’s the only hydrant district that we have in our territory. So after that we asked North River to set up a water supply drafting site and they maintained that site until the end of the call.

We transported a little over 250,000 gallons to the scene. We had a total of 18 apparatus and a total of 80 firefighters on scene – North Shore, East River, Charlottetown Station 2, New Glasgow and North River, so five departments – Charlottetown is composite, the other four are all volunteer.

We hauled roughly 110,000 gallons from the parks; we hauled 40,000 from our fire hall, and over 100,000 from the drafting site.

The distance from our hall to the scene is seven kilometres. From the scene to the Dalvay compound was 6.2 kilometres and from the scene to the drafting site was 5.8 kilometres.

When I did my 360 I shut the propane tank off. It was about three-quarters full. So we had an exposure with the propane tank on, on the Charlie side, and on the Alpha side we had a structure. There were million dollar homes within 1,000 feet of the propane tank.

Around 22:00 we started releasing apparatus. We didn’t do any relief. We brought meals in – the [resort] owner also owns Tim Hortons so he graciously brought out sandwiches and big urns of coffee and we were there in the morning with our department – a small crew – and they brought out coffee and breakfast sandwiches; they treated us really well.

* * *

The point of origin was . . . in the garden mulch. The fire marshal’s finding was that it started in the mulch outside – hence the call for a grass fire. It then – with the high winds – spread to the wooden porch, up the wooden porch into both the first and second storeys and into the attic, and when we arrived that whole section of the building was involved, and we had involvement through the entire roof and attic; it had broken through but you could see it was pressurized and there was smoke pouring out of all the vents and soffits.

Also, upon arrival, the winds had taken the flames and debris and were depositing it and starting spot fires downwind, probably a kilometre.

* * *

The cause was undetermined; they couldn’t determine whether it was from a piece of glass, spontaneous combustion, from a cigarette.

Basically we took a defensive stand and tried not to allow it to spread to any other buildings.

At about 10 o’clock we started releasing resources and we called in a Hi-Mac, which is an excavator and he went in and started knocking down parts of structures that were left and could collapse and fall on a neighbouring structure, and we went in and started dousing hot spots with water; we kept one of our engines and one of our tankers there and a crew, and they just doused hot spots. And in the morning we put a larger crew on and got another excavators and we just rooted through every hot spot and doused them and by about 12:10 the following day we had all the hot spots out, so we left the scene completely and turned it over to the fire marshal’s office.

It was a $4.5 million loss.

* * *

A couple of the departments we don’t have mutual-aid agreements with and they came, but we now are in the process of finalizing a formal mutual aid-agreement for all of Queen’s County. It had been left to the departments – you’re my neighbouring department, we’ll back each other up.

Stanhope Beach  
Access to the site of the Stanhope Beach Resort was complicated by onlookers, the number of apparatuses, and vehicles belonging to volunteer firefighters (who responded in their own cars). There were 18 trucks and 80 firefighters at the scene.

 
For most house fires you can probably handle it yourself but you could have a number of members sick or on vacation; you could get into something that is going to run you longer than you thought or, in our case, because we’re rural, we have farms and warehouses and you are going to be calling mutual aid automatically at that time.

Incident command – I have had that but not all my officers have; I am a relatively new chief; I have just over two years as chief and one year as the deputy chief. I’ve been a firefighter for 17 years.

Luckily, we all have a shared radio frequency so we can communicate by radio. One of the big challenges we had was the length of the call – if you’re using your radio for any length of time you’re going to lose your batteries; more radios and more batteries and the ability to charge your radios on scene is a lesson learned.

Another lesson learned – I had three-quarters of a battery in my cell phone but you never know and should always keep it fully charged.

The other lesson learned: don’t be scared to ask for more help in incident command. I handled water supply in incident command when I should have delegated. East River Chief Rod MacDonald was standing there and I could have said, “I want you to be my water supply officer.” It was mentioned at our debrief – as a chief or deputy chief don’t be afraid to ask is there anything you can do.

Training and working together and mutual-aid practices – we held a mutual-aid practice with Charlottetown and East River about four months previously and we moved 65,000 gallons of water in an hour and 20 minutes, so we had just done a water shuttle and used almost all the same vehicles as we did in this fire.

And, the big thing for firefighters is don’t overwork yourself. There were a number of areas in this fire that firefighters needed an air pack and we basically went to everyone’s cascades on scene and we actually called for our air support – we have a contractor who comes in and supplies air.

* * *

Each of the commanders in each of the divisions . . . The North Shore was on the Alpha side and Bravo side; North River was on the Charlie side protecting the propane tank. North River’s only task was to cool that tank.

Charlottetown came in and deployed its ladder on the Delta-Alpha corner and were protecting the propane tank and trying to mitigate the debris flowing over as much as possible.

North Shore – my deputy chief was on the Delta side co-ordinating there; I was on the Alpha side and Bravo side for the most part and then the chief of North River was on the Charlie side.

Each of the chiefs looked after his sector and reported back to me.

* * *

It was a two-storey building and it had all been modernized; there was a large, single-storey conference centre – with cathedral ceilings, one big wide open space; ironically, the [owners] had hired the manager of White Point, and he had been here for a year – this was his second year – he and his wife. (A fire in November 2012 destroyed the White Point Beach Resort in Nova Scotia.)

One of the things as far as our basic officers’ course goes – IC is one of the courses you must take and one of the things I did after becoming chief was revise the bylaws with the assistance of my executive and input from the firefighters and one of the things we’ve implemented is that if you become an officer you must have – or in the officer’s term – the Level 1 officer’s course or you’re not eligible to re-offer for office; in fact I’ve also required mandatory Level 1 certifications for my officers – all firefighters are now required to get Level 1 but there are a number who were grandfathered – I changed that and all nine of them now have it.

* * *

Number of calls? Normally we’ve been going to between 30 and 40 but last year [2012] we had 67. We do fire, MVA, medical and rescues. We do not do hazmat. There’s an Island hazmat team based out of the fire school. We get eight to 10 structure fires a year.

It’s a tourist area so we have motels, cottages, bed and breakfasts, and restaurants; we have two harbours and two wharves with a number of fishing vessels and we have a national park.

We respond to all incidents within the park; they have a forest fire team in place but we do all their structures.

* * *

At 5 o’clock every one of our members was there – we have 31 members. On a major fire, everybody shows up. In fact we had retired members come and ask what they could do to help – some helped with radio traffic, some went for food, some were directing traffic out on the highway.

* * *

Another lesson learned: designate someone to take pictures, although when you need everybody you’ve got . . .

I think you can never have enough help; don’t be scared to ask. That’s my biggest lesson . . . You can’t do everything yourself.

Stanhope Beach Resort
  • Main Inn and three other buildings destroyed
  • Total rooms: 85 plus 200-seat conference centre
  • Renovated in 2010
  • No automatic sprinklers
  • Opened for business in 1860
More in this category:  |  Incident Report: January 2014 »

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