Syncrude Canada confirmed it was responding to a fire at its Mildred Lake Upgrader north of Fort McMurray Tuesday afternoon.
“A section of the plant ignited,” a Syncrude worker, who did not want to be identified, told Global News. “A line ignited and somehow exploded and shot flames maybe 100 feet in the air, maybe more. It fully engulfed one of the units and is probably melting it right now.”
A photo supplied to Global News shows thick, dark smoke billowing up into the sky. In a video posted by MyMcMurray, flames are seen coming from the same site.
Late Tuesday afternoon, Syncrude confirmed via Twitter that one employee was injured and taken to hospital and that their family had been notified. Alberta Health Services said emergency medical staff transported one person in serious but stable condition from the Syncrude plant to hospital. Global News learned the worker suffered burns and has been flown to Edmonton.
“I heard a pretty good thud and it was just unusual,” an oilfield worker, who asked only to be identified as Randy, said. “I looked up and saw this fireball – and black – just engulfed in smoke coming up. You’re kind of stunned… It just escalated from there.
“The people up here, they’ve been through enough already,” Randy said. “To see that, it was really devastating.”
A contractor, who didn’t want to be identified, said his group noticed a strong smell of gas sometime around 1:30 p.m.
“We were in one of the units and there was just a heavy smell of gas that started all of a sudden. One of our guys went to get a gas detector and within seconds, the alarms were going off in the plant site and we were moving to our muster points and passed by a pipe that was spewing a gas of some sort out.
“It smelled a lot like gasoline. It was pretty evident right away that something was going to happen. We started moving and got out of there as fast as we could… We all made it to our muster points and the ground shook.”
He said it was only about two or three minutes from when they smelled gas to when the blast occurred.
“We quickly realized that we could feel the wind shift a little bit. I turned around and looked up behind me and there was a fairly large fireball in the air.”
Watch below: Video supplied to Global News by Perry Langdon shows heavy smoke from a fire at the Syncrude site near Fort McMurray on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.
Syncrude said the fire started started shortly before 2 p.m.
“The safety of the people at our site is Syncrude’s top priority,” spokesperson Will Gibson said. “Our focus is on responding to this incident and ensuring people on our site are safe.”
Gibson added Syncrude would be conducting its own investigation into what happened, in addition to other independent investigations.
Watch below: A Syncrude employee is in hospital with burns following an explosion at the company’s upgrader facility north of Fort McMurray. Sarah Kraus reports.
A witness told Global News that, as of 5 p.m., the fire appeared to be out.
“Syncrude Emergency Services and Operations personnel have isolated and controlled a fire that occurred in the Mildred Lake Upgrader this afternoon,” the company said in a news release at 6 p.m.
One person who was working on site 15-2 said there are about 1,000 staff on site. He said pumper trucks were putting water on the flames and the smoke had turned from black to white. Busses came in to take workers away.
“Fire trucks from town had come in,” Randy said. “It was still a large, active fire and it looked like they were doing well. Everybody was at their emergency assembly areas and it looked like, for the most part, everyone was pretty calm.”
“Wood Buffalo RCMP, along with other emergency services, are on scene at an explosion that took place at the Syncrude oil site,” Wood Buffalo RCMP said.
“OHS is certainly aware of the fire but our officers aren’t on site because, from what I understand, it’s still an active fire,” said Trent Bancarz, public affairs officer with Alberta Occupational Health and Safety.
RCMP and Alberta Energy Regulator investigators have been dispatched to the site. Highway 63 – the main road to the site – was reduced to one lane at about 2 p.m. RCMP said police were helping evacuate non-essential staff from the site. Shortly before 5:30 p.m., the RCMP said all lanes of Highway 63 had been reopened.
The contractor praised Syncrude’s quick response.
“They’re number one in the game. They were right on top of it.”
He said the work projects were shut down until Monday.
“It’s starting to sink in,” he said from camp. “I’m a little shaken. Reality is kicking in a bit. It was an ordeal, but we’re pretty strong up here. We’ll move on.”
Watch below: One person was taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after an explosion at Syncrude’s Mildred Lake Upgrader site. Quinn Ohler has the details.
The Syncrude facility is located roughly 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
The mayor of Wood Buffalo sent a message on Twitter Tuesday afternoon.
Alberta Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd tweeted that the “injured worker and their family are in our thoughts right now” Tuesday evening.
The Fort McKay First Nation posted an air quality warning on its Facebook page.
“About 30 minutes ago there was an explosion and fire at the Syncrude Base Plant. Unofficial reports indicate that fire is contained. The Syncrude Base Plant and area has been mostly evacuated… Due to the smoke from the Syncrude fire and the prevailing wind direction Fort McKay Emergency Services is asking that Fort McKay residents take the following actions as a precaution and to minimize health symptoms.”
In 2015, there was an explosion at the Syncrude Base Mine Plant (12).
With a file from The Canadian Press