Air quality warning issued after raging barge fire in Surrey

VANCOUVER — A massive fire on a barge in the Fraser River in Surrey filled the air over Metro Vancouver with acrid grey smoke Friday, prompting health officials to issue an air quality warning.

The barge, east of the Pattullo Bridge, belongs to Schnitzer Metal, a recycling company, and was loaded with old cars and appliances ready for shipping.

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Surrey assistant fire chief Ben Dirksen said they received a call shortly after 4:30 a.m. about a large fire burning deep in a pile of scrap metal.

As of 11 a.m., the fire was still smouldering despite attempts to put it out from land and from the water using one of Vancouver’s fire boats.

Witnesses posted photos on social media showing the fire sending a huge plume of black smoke in the air. Several people said it sounded like cars were exploding.

The smoke is affecting the air quality across Metro Vancouver, with many residents reporting a chemical taste to the air. Fire officials say material from old cars, such as fabric and rubber tires, and other scrap metal are causing the toxic smoke.

Metro Vancouver posted an air quality statement on Twitter, recommending people stay inside and close the windows.

Metro Vancouver issued another health advisory later Friday, saying sporadic elevated levels of fine particulate matter were measured at air quality monitoring stations in Metro Vancouver. The advisory says smoke from wildfires in West Vancouver and from California, Oregon, and Washington may be contributing to the poor air quality.

Metro says fires burning in Agassiz and east of Manning Park, as well as the barge fire may also contribute to smoke concentrations.

Dr. Michael Schwandt, a medical health officer with the Fraser Health Authority, said they are monitoring the air quality closely and will need to determine what types of particulate matter are in the air. Inhaling particulate matter can be harmful to anyone, but can be particularly dangerous for those with health problems.

“The exact contents in the air are unknown so we are urging everyone to exercise caution outdoors,” he said.

Schwandt said anyone with a heart or lung condition should limit activity outside while the fire is still burning, and when possible stay indoors.

Anyone who is exercising or working outside should stop if they have difficulty breathing, he added. The smoke is also a concern for infants, the elderly and those who have diabetes, and lung or heart disease.

Fire crews had difficulty fighting the fire from land so Vancouver Fire and Rescue sent one of its three fire boats and four firefighters to aid in the battle. The Vancouver Fraser Port Authority was coordinating the response and working with Surrey Fire, Vancouver Fire and Rescue, and the health authorities.

Dirksen said firefighters are on barge and are attempting to pull the cars apart to get to the centre.

“We have no idea of the cause,” he said, adding that it could take all day to put out the fire.

Dirksen said officials were concerned that the plume of smoke was causing a distraction for drivers on the Pattullo Bridge, and urged drivers to keep their eyes on the road.

— With files from Jennifer Saltman

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