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Updated: Sat, 25 Jan 2014 18:00:31 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Natural gas pipeline explodes near Otterburne

A natural gas pipeline near Otterburne, Manitoba early Saturday morning shot flames hundreds of meters into the sky. courtesy Ken Peters

A natural gas pipeline near Otterburne, Manitoba early Saturday morning shot flames hundreds of meters into the sky. courtesy Ken Peters

Fire burned for more than 12 hours at a natural gas pipeline after it exploded early Saturday morning near Otterburne, about 50 kilometres south of Winnipeg.

St-Pierre-Jolys RCMP responded around 1:05 a.m. to what they're calling a "loud explosion."

Witnesses who live close to the scene 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 video of the blast. He lost power and 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.

Thousands lose gas service 

As many as 4,000 people in the area are without natural gas.

Emergency Measures spokesperson Nicki Albus 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."​

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

The town of Niverville says 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."

Pipeline crews worked to vent gas

The pipeline, which is owned by TransCanadaPipeLines, 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.

However, 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 the residents of three homes closest to the site to return. 

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.

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