The federal transport minister has issued an order requiring Canada’s two main railways — Canadian National and Canadian Pacific — to implement a set of measures aimed at preventing further wildfires in southern B.C. and other parts of the country where fire risk is high.

Minister Omar Alghabra issued the ministerial order on Sunday, following a 48-hour ban on non-emergency train traffic in the area around Lytton, B.C.

CN and CP must implement the additional fire prevention measures — including the ability to respond to fires within 60 minutes, regular fire patrols, and slower train speeds in some cases when fire risk is “extreme” — until October 31, 2021. That means they’ll be in effect for at least the first three months of the new crop year, when grain movement by train traditionally ramps up with harvest in Western Canada.

CN and CP mainlines shut down

Both CN and CP’s mainlines through southern B.C. were damaged in the wildfires that started June 30th, shutting down rail traffic on a critical stretch linking the Prairies to the country’s biggest port in Vancouver.

CP resumed mainline traffic on a limited basis as of July 6, but a bridge on CN’s line near Lytton was reportedly still out of commission on July 9 when Alghabra issued the order to cease train movement in the area for 48 hours.

An official cause of the initial fire has not been determined, but the Transportation Safety Board has deployed a team of investigators to the Lytton area to assess whether it was ignited by a train.

The minister said the two-day pause was necessary to allow for safe rail operations and for area residents to temporarily return to inspect their homes. Several Indigenous leaders also said they were prepared to block trains unless government and railway companies responded to their concerns about recovery from the fires.

While mid-summer is typically the slowest time of year for grain movement by rail, the number of outstanding hopper car orders from grain companies on the Prairies has started climbing, according to the Ag Transport Coalition. The effects of the shutdown could hit country elevators in the coming weeks if empty hopper cars are unable to return east.

“It is not unreasonable to think a return to ‘normal’ could take weeks,” noted the coalition, in its weekly report.

New fire prevention measures in B.C.

On Sunday, the transport minister ordered CN and CP to implement the following measures when operating in the area southwest of Kamloops when fire danger is categorized as “extreme”:

  • Incorporate the deployment of fire suppression capacity into their operations that will ensure a 60 minute response time to any fires detected along the right of way of the Subdivisions in order to take steps to extinguish or control the reported fire, or to notify the fire service responsible for the area if the fire cannot be controlled without assistance;
  • Require that the conductor on any train be responsible for spotting for fires and reporting any fires or smoldering areas along the Subdivisions to Rail Traffic Control for response by fire services;
  • Ensure that any vegetation control measures are followed by removal of combustible materials; and
  • CN and CP must ensure that at least 10 fire detection patrols are conducted on the Subdivisions every 24 hours unless a train has not operated on the relevant Subdivision for a period of at least 3 hours.
  • CN and CP must consult with Indigenous governments or other Indigenous governing bodies located along the Subdivisions to incorporate considerations of Indigenous knowledge related to the presence of fire hazards, fire risk and control of fires into the preparation of Fire Hazard Reduction Plans and the Fire Preparedness Plans required under the Prevention and Control of Fires on Line Works Regulations.

New measures across Canada

Alghabra also ordered the railways enact the following fire prevention measures across the country:

  • Where the air temperature is 30 to 32 degrees Celsius and the fire danger level for the area is “extreme”, Class 1 railways (Canada’s largest railways) must ensure train speeds are reduced to 25 mph where permitted track speed is between 26 mph and 35 mph and by 10 mph if track speed is 36 mph or greater.
  • Where the air temperature is 33 degrees Celsius or higher and the fire danger level for the area is “extreme”, Class 1 railways must ensure train speeds are reduced to 25 mph where permitted track speed between 26 mph and 50 mph and to 30 mph where the permitted track speed is 51 mph or greater.
  • Class 1 railways must ensure that no locomotive is operated through an area where the fire danger level is “extreme” unless it has been inspected in the previous 15 days to ensure the locomotive’s exhaust passages are clear of combustible material, including oil accumulation and carbonaceous deposits in excess of 1/8 inch (3 mm) in thickness.
  • Class 1 railways must develop and implement an Interim Extreme Weather Fire Risk Mitigation Plan within 14 days following the issuance of this Order that at a minimum addresses fire detection, monitoring and response measures.
  • Class 1 railways must communicate the Interim Extreme Weather Fire Risk Mitigation Plan to municipal and other orders of government, including Indigenous governments or other Indigenous governing bodies, and establish a method for receiving comments for consideration.
  • Class 1 railways must complete and implement a final Extreme Weather Fire Risk Mitigation Plan within 60 days following the issuance of this Order.

The transport department said it will work with railways to incorporate the fire risk reduction measures on a permanent basis “with extreme weather events occurring more severely and frequently in Canada due to climate change.”

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