Tony Makuch, President of Toronto-based Lake Shore Gold Corp, has seen forest fires before, but nothing quite like Timmins No. 9 fire that recently threatened many towns and mines in Northern Ontario.
The main fire (believed to be caused by human activity) started on May 20 and went on a week-long rampage that consumed nearly 40,000 hectares of forest, drove several hundred local residents from their homes and forced Lake Shore to close its Timmins West mine for some 72 hours.
“It was a big fire,” says Makuch, who got a glimpse of it from the window of an airplane while flying into nearby Timmins. “I’d never seen one that big before.”
Timmins No. 9 was just one of dozens of fires reported across the northern districts of Ontario in the latter half of May. According to Ministry of Natural Resources bulletins, there were five in the Timmins area and four near Kirkland Lake, another hub of mining activity.
Like Lake Shore Gold, Toronto-based Kirkland Lake Gold Inc. was also forced to suspend operations (for 11 days as it turned out) after one of the blazes destroyed a transmission line that delivers power to the company’s operations.
A third Toronto company, AuRico Gold, which is ramping up to commercial production from an open-pit mine, had to stop part of its operation for a total of eight days.
“The fire came as close as 300 metres to the western edge of our property, but never damaged any of the structures,” says Kirkland Lake Gold’s Chief Operating Officer Mark Tessier. “We’ve made the best use of the downtime by doing maintenance that we had scheduled for later in the year.”
Timmins No. 9, by far the biggest fire in either centre, was eight to 10 kilometres wide and 70 kilometres long. It came within five kilometres of Lake Shore Gold’s property, but remained to the west of a north-south highway and was, therefore, never a direct threat. However, strong south and southwest winds carried the smoke for many kilometres from the fire itself and that was a problem.
Lake Shore Gold is an underground mine, and close to 50 employees per shift work at depths of 730 to 765 metres. The company relies on ventilation shafts to pump fresh air from surface to depth, and the danger was that air contaminated by smoke would be pumped down.
Ontario Provincial Police issued an evacuation order for the area early afternoon on May 24, a Thursday.
“We had already brought the men up and sent them home,” says Mark Utting, the company’s vice-president of investor relations. “We had management people on site when the police arrived and ordered everyone out.”
The high winds persisted through Friday and kept blowing smoke in the direction of the mine and Timmins. “You could really smell it and there was a haze on the horizon,” adds Makuch.
The winds dropped and changed direction overnight and by Saturday morning the area around the mine was more or less clear of smoke. The change in the weather, along with efforts to suppress the blaze, allowed the police to lift their evacuation orders, and Lake Shore personnel were back on site by the afternoon of Sunday, May 27.
Seven shifts were suspended due to the shutdown, but production resumed on the morning of May 28.
The Kirkland Lake No. 8 fire, (also believed to be caused by human activity) was reported May 20 (the Sunday of the Victoria Day long weekend) and eventually destroyed 2,326 hectares of forest, as well as parts of a hydro transmission line, before being brought under control.
Tessier notes that there were about 250 employees on Kirkland Lake Gold’s site when the power went off. “The police came in and said we should get the workers out of the mine,” he said. “We sent a message out to have everyone report to their stations and we hoisted them.”
The fire itself did not pose a direct threat and the winds were blowing in a direction that kept Kirkland Lake’s mine site free of smoke. As a result, a skeleton staff of six or seven supervisory employees was able to remain overnight. Others were allowed to return the following day; but with nothing but diesel-generated emergency power, the company chose not to resume production.
Instead, management moved forward with a number of maintenance projects that were scheduled for later in the year and would have required the mine to be shut down anyway.
Another local miner, AuRico, reported that the Kirkland Lake No. 8 fire was burning some 70 kilometres east of its property, but only destroyed the hydro transmission line that serves as the principal source of power for the Young-Davidson mine.
The company was able to draw on a secondary 44 kV line to power diesel generators to keep the mine operating and to maintain construction activities. However, the mill had to be shut down from May 21 to 29 and all ore processing suspended.
AuRico poured its first gold from the Young-Davidson mine on April 30. Despite the fire and the disruption it caused, AuRico is moving quickly toward commercial production which will be achieved when the pit produces, on average, 29,750 tonnes of ore per day over a 30-day period and the mill attains a daily output of 5,100 tonnes over the same period.
The mine had averaged 27,000 tonnes a day from April 1 to May 19 and the mill was operating at commercial tonnages. Then the fire struck.