Fuel plant fire threatened entire town

From our March 2013 issue

By Betty Pudwell – Salmon Arm, B.C.

In 1948, I lived in Golden Prairie, Sask. My father, Percy Gamble, was the postmaster there for many years.

We were at the end of a CPR train line that came out of Medicine Hat, Alta. It came on Tuesday every week delivering everything our town would need.

Sometimes someone would need a ride to Medicine Hat and a passenger car would be added when the city was notified by telegraph.

I would rush to the train station after school to catch a ride just down the track to where the engine had to turn about and return to the city. I was four years old.

If the passenger car was available, I rode it to the turnabout, otherwise I rode in the engine to watch them throw coal and wood into the burner for the steam.

Storage tanks could blow

One day, dad came home and said we needed to pack everything and be ready to move out quickly. There was a fire at the bulk fuel plant, started by a spark from a welding machine.

There were huge storage tanks on site in town containing bulk fuel and there was severe danger of an explosion which would take out the whole town.

Many people were loading their belongings on anything that would carry them and evacuating the townsite.

The black smoke was billowing into the sky for many feet and I frightenedly watched it from my backyard. We didn’t evacuate but were ready to go.

The oil company owner was in Regina and was contacted by the only phone in town at the hotel. They were concerned that someone would have to go up the side of the tanks to open the release valve, but this was very dangerous as it could explode at any moment.

We didn’t have a fire department in town, only a pump wagon that got water from a single well pump blocks away.

Train arrived unexpectedly

Lo and behold, a train engine whistle was heard by someone among all the excitement and someone ran to the railroad station.

The steam train had come that day on a testing or training trip instead of the expected Tuesday.

The train was able to back up to the water station outside of town, fill their water boiler, drive into the town, and spray the fuel boilers in order to cool them down so someone could release the pressure valves.

Many people survived that terrible incident. The only person injured from the fire was the young man that had been doing the welding.