Updated: Evacuation order lifted, residents return after B.C. jet fuel spill

WINLAW, B.C. – The smell was so overpowering that it didn’t take much to convince Lil Meloche to grab her dogs and leave her rural British Columbia home after a tanker carrying 35,000 litres of jet fuel crashed into a nearby creek.

An evacuation order issued Friday night was lifted Saturday in the area around the small community of Lemon Creek, in the West Kootenay region of the province. As many as 2,500 people were affected by the evacuation at its peak, including Meloche.

“Awful smell,” said Meloche, 77. “That was bad… It’s gone now, though.”

She was returning from a shopping trip to nearby Nelson when she was stopped on the road Friday afternoon and warned an evacuation could be coming.

“I just got in, just put my groceries away and they come around telling us we were evacuated,” she said. “I grabbed my dogs and left.”

Meloche stayed at a friend’s home until about 9:30 p.m. Friday night, when she was allowed to return.

“We got back in but the fire department told us not to drink the water,” said Meloche, who uses an oxygen tank for health reasons.

The truck that crashed into Lemon Creek, about 60 kilometres north of Castlegar, B.C., had been on its way to supply helicopters battling a nearby wildfire when it careened into the creek along a gravel road in the Slocan Valley.

An evacuation order was issued Friday night for a 30- to 35-kilometre stretch around the spill, but that area was reduced Saturday morning and then lifted.

A hazardous materials team from Vancouver was sent to the area to work with local fire departments and other agencies to contain a fuel spill that stretched to three kilometres long, 30 to 50 metres wide near the Brilliant hydroelectric dam on the Kootenay River close to Castlegar.

Bill Macpherson, of the Regional District of Central Kootenay, said water and air testing was ongoing.

“The Hazmat crews are working on containment and they’re mapping out the best possible way to remove it and contain it using booms, and other various methods that they have,” he said.

While the evacuation wasn’t mandatory, emergency centres were set up in two schools in Nelson, and another in Slocan City.

“Nearly 600 people are at the three reception centres. Obviously many people are finding accommodation with friends… but a large number have utilized them,” Macpherson said just before the evacuation ended.

A 24-hour order against using the water remained in place.

Almost all of the tanker load — 35,000 litres — spilled in the creek, the district said in a statement. The company had dispatched a crew to the area that was determining the best removal option for the tanker.

The driver of the tanker suffered minor injuries, but no area residents had reported medical concerns related to the spill.

Wayne Smook, senior vice-president of airport services for the truck owner, Calgary-based Executive Flight Centre, said he hadn’t spoken to the driver but understood that the truck rolled when the shoulder of the road collapsed. He said the driver had to walk several kilometres down the gravel road to seek help.

The company sent one crew to the scene Friday night and another was en route Saturday.

“The focus now is on containment and clean-up,” Smook said.

An official with B.C.’s Ministry of Environment said Executive Flight Centre would be responsible for cleaning up the fuel, which is known as Jet A1.

There were no reports of fish or wildlife affected, said the official, who added the spill was different from a tanker of crude oil being leaked into a waterway.

“It’s like spilling gasoline on the street, it dissipates a lot quicker, whereas crude oil sticks,” the official said.

Environment ministry staff were monitoring the spill response.

Judy Derco, owner of the Lemon Creek Lodge, said a fireman came to warn them of the spill but she and her guests were not evacuated. A guest wedding unfolded on the scenic property on Saturday as planned.

“We’re just concerned about our water quality now,” she said.

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