01/26/2014 10:36 EST | Updated 03/28/2014 05:59 EDT

Manitoba pipeline explosion causes heat outage in extreme cold

A pipeline explosion near Otterburne, Man., 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg, has left thousands without gas to heat their homes as temperatures drop to -20 C, feeling more like -34 C with the wind chill.

The outage began after a natural gas pipeline blew up shortly after midnight on Saturday and burned for more than 12 hours. Officials said close to 4,000 people have now lost heat in several communities.

The Rural Municipality of Hanover declared a state of local emergency Saturday afternoon, in a news release that said the outage was expected to last 24 to 72 hours.

Temperatures dipped to near -20 C overnight, and on Sunday, Environment Canada issued a blowing snow warning for the Winnipeg area. Winds are making the temperature feel like -34 C.

"We are in the midst of another temperature drop. A bit of an Arctic front is moving in here, and to the south of us, there is a blizzard system, so people in this area are going to get a nasty, cold, winter storm day," CBC's Katie Nicholson reported.

Emergency Measures spokesperson Nicki Albus on Saturday acknowledged cold weather is on the way.

"We know it's cold and people may be concerned about that but we are on the job here. Everyone here's communicating well. We have a great group of people at the site and in the communities who have set up their emergency operation centres to handle this dilemma."​

Warming centres

She said warming centres have been set up to take in residents who have no heat.

The town of Niverville said it has lost gas service and that will continue for at least 24 hours and possibly "multiple days."

Manitoba Hydro said the following communities are affected:

- New Bothwell.

- Niverville.

- Otterburne.

- Kleefeld.

- St-Pierre-Jolys.

- Grunthal.

- St. Malo.

- Dufrost.

- Ste. Agathe.

Hydro said it does not know when service will be restored but that people should "prepare for an extended outage."

The utility is reminding customers to use only approved space heaters indoors, and where possible to conserve use of electricity during the gas outage. It says people should not use barbecues or any unapproved heaters indoors because they may produce carbon monoxide. Anyone leaving home should shut off the water supply and turn down the thermostat.

The New Bothwell cheese plant had to shut down production because it's sanitizer is dependent on gas to operate. The plant may try to switch its generator over to propane this week if the outage persists.

'Loud explosion'

Trouble at the site of the pipeline was reported early Saturday when RCMP responded at around 1:05 a.m. to a "loud explosion."

Witnesses who live in the area said it was massive. Paul Rawluk lives nearby and drove to the site.

"As we got closer, we could see these massive 200 to 300 metre high flames just shooting out of the ground and it literally sounded like a jet plane," he said. "And that's the thing that really got us, was the sound of it."

He said it was hard to describe the scale.

"Massive, like absolutely massive," he said. "The police were by [Highway] 59 and you could just see little cars out there and you could see in comparison how big the flame was. It was just literally two to 300 metres in the air. And bright, I mean lit up the sky."

Tyler Holigroski, who lives in the Otterburne area, remembers seeing a flickering, bright light in the sky.

"Thought it was the neighbours' house or something like that," he said. "I thought there was a fire, but the way it lit the sky, it was like the sun coming up. The only thing is it was flashing. It would get brighter, get dim, get brighter, go dim.

"It lit up the whole sky here for half an hour," Holigroski said.

Hunter Gagnon and his dad live outside the evacuation zone.

"It was just insane," he said. "It was absolutely huge, the fire. It was at least 300 feet high, there was a bunch of people there all parked along the highway."

Otterburne resident Marc Labossiere was forced from his home moments after shooting a video of the blast. He lost power a short time later, and police knocked on his door, telling him to get out.

He's back at home now, and said he could still see the flames late Saturday morning.

"It went from 500-600 feet in the air down to manageable," he said. "Like, something they're just waiting for it to snuff itself out and it's still burning right now."​

Police said the burning gas was non-toxic.

Pipeline crews worked to vent gas

The pipeline, which is owned by TransCanada, has been temporarily shut down according to a statement from a company spokesman. The statement also said that nearby roads have been closed, and that the company is not aware of any reports of injuries.

Five houses within the vicinity of the fire were evacuated by RCMP and St-Pierre-Jolys Fire Department.

The residents of two of the homes have been allowed to return, but police were not letting residents return to the three homes closest to the site. 

Crews spent most of the day venting the natural gas from the system to eliminate the fuel source for the fire.

The company said that process generated a loud noise but posed no risk to the public.

By Saturday afternoon, more than 12 hours after it started, TransCanada officials said the fire was out.

The cause of the fire is under investigation.

TransCanada is working with Manitoba Hydro to restore regular natural gas service, the company's spokesperson Davis Sheremata said in a statement Saturday night.

Trucks containing compressed natural gas are being sent to metering stations in the area. The initial supply will be used to provide gas to critical services such as personal care homes and hospitals, as well as schools or churches being used as emergency warming centres.

The company did not provide a timeline of when regular natural gas service will resume.