Everybody talks about the oil sands of Alberta as the future salvation of energy hungry North America. However, the real oil boom in Canada is happening in the province next door, Saskatchewan, where higher quality light crude is readily available by comparison.
Dale Pincemin of Pincemin Fire-Safety provides a valuable service to the Saskatchewan oil industry. That light crude sometimes catches fire at an inopportune moment.
When it does, they call Pincemin to put it out.
"Saskatchewan right now is really opening up," he said. "It's just unreal. The oil industry has been here since the early 1950s so there has always been a lot of activity here and in western Alberta."
Exports from Saskatchewan, led by oil and natural gas, more than doubled in August compared to the same month in 2007. That is the highest percentage increase among the Canadian provinces and more than ten times the national average.
Mirroring that boom, Pincemin Fire-Safety has expanded from one fire truck and a subleased air trailer in 1995 to a fleet that today includes four medic units, one advanced medical unit, three air trailers, three air skid units and six fire trucks. Pincemin employs a work force of 18 people.
About four times a year, Pincemin personnel and apparatus rush to the scene of a major well control or storage facility incident. Clients who wish to insure Pincemin's availability in an emergency place him on retainer. Based in Kindersley, SK, Pincemin's nearest industrial fire fighting competition is in Red Deer, AB, more than 200 miles away. Recently, Pincemin directly challenged that competition by opening a station in Red Deer.
A Saskatchewan native, Pincemin's own history as a firefighter stretches back 23 years.
"I grew up on a family farm," Pincemin said. "I began working in the oil industry in the fall of 1986. I had a friend who worked for a fire company and needed a part-time man for a couple of days, so I threw in with him. It kind of grew on me."
By November, Pincemin became a fire station manager for the company.
"My career just sort of evolved from there," Pincemin said. "I saw a need for bigger pumps. We had 250 gpm pumps back then. Now we've got fire trucks that will put out 1,250 to 1,800 gpm."
When the company wanted to transfer him to Alberta, Pincemin struck out on his own. He and a partner bought a fire pump and then built their own fire truck, complete with tanks, pumps and connections.
"I didn't want to leave here," Pincemin said. "I had family roots and a farm out here. So I finally got forced into starting up on my own."
In Saskatchewan, below zero winter conditions are tough enough. Pincemin has fought fires where the monitors have frozen and cracked. But the summertime is even worse for firefighters. From May to August, Saskatchewan lightning strikes register in the tens of thousands daily, igniting a multitude of prairie fires and often finding an unfortunate industrial target.
In May 2000, five years after Pincemin struck out on his own, a lightning strike provided him with the fire that made his reputation in western Canada.
"I had one fire truck at that time," he said. "One morning I took the computerized foam pump out of the truck and was working on it. I had just gotten it back together and was ready for lunch when I got a call from our dispatch."
A tank battery about 25 miles away was ablaze, the dispatcher said. Pincemin looked out the door and could see the mushroom cloud rising above the prairie.
"So we responded," he said. "It turned out to be a heck of a fire."
Pincemin arrived to find eight 750-barrel storage tanks full of light crude and condensate burning, plus two vertical treaters standing 40 feet tall. Lids from the tanks were blown off in an initial blast and later found a quarter-mile away.
"In between that facility and the east side of the yard were four more 1,000-barrel tanks full of condensate," Pincemin said. "There was a load line across the facility and a valve had burned off. Oil was flowing out steadily."
Pincemin attacked the rolling fire with AR-AFFF, but the foam floated away with the fresh oil still being pumped onto the site. It took six and a half hours to finally extinguish the blaze. During that time, several of the tanks boiled over.
"We were able to keep the other tanks cool so they didn't light," Pincemin said. "We saved all the offices and the other production tanks."
The big fire "opened up eyes" about what his company could do, he said.
"From there we just started to grow," Pincemin said.
Along with his fleet of fire and emergency apparatus, Pincemin maintains the largest stockpile of fire fighting foam in Saskatchewan. He has more than enough business to justify it.
"Today, we do a lot of well control for the major companies in western Canada," Pincemin said. "We do a lot of emergency work and a lot of standby work as well."