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Residents forced from homes due to ammonia leak in Fernie, B.C. allowed to return

Last Updated Oct 23, 2017 at 9:40 am EDT

FERNIE, B.C. – A community in southeastern British Columbia is trying to move forward following a deadly ammonia leak at an ice rink last week.

Ninety-five people were allowed to return to their homes in Fernie, B.C., on Sunday, five days after they were forced to leave when a toxic gas leaked at the Fernie Memorial Arena, killing three men.

Wayne Hornquist, 59, and Lloyd Smith, 52, worked for the City of Fernie while 46-year-old Jason Podloski worked for refrigeration company CIMCO.

Fire Chief Ted Ruiter said on Sunday that lab results show there’s no longer a safety risk in the area, but the arena and community centre remain closed indefinitely as investigators continue trying to determine the cause of the leak.

“The response on the scene is no transitioning from an emergency response to a clean-up operation,” he said.

Norm McInnis, the city’s chief administrative officer, welcomed the evacuees home on Sunday.

“We recognize that this is a very difficult time for you and we’re so happy that you’re all returning home today safely,” he said.

Seven of the homes were left without power following the evacuation. All residents have been warned that they may smell ammonia and air quality testing will be done to monitor levels of the gas.

Tests have also shown there is no ammonia left in the ice rink’s system and officials believe it was all released during the leak, Ruiter said.

Brine — a salt water compound used to make ice — in the arena has been contaminated and must be removed and treated, he added.

Ammonia is used in mechanical refrigeration systems, including those in ice rinks. The colourless gas is toxic if inhaled.

The tragedy has been difficult for Fernie’s approximately 5,250 residents, McInnis said.

“There’s been many times this week where words just don’t seem to be enough,” he said.

The municipality shuttered its operations on Friday as staff grieved the loss of their co-workers, but McInnis said most staff were expecting to return to work on Monday.

Counsellors have been made available to help people deal with grief and stress.

Plans are also in the works for a community memorial to remember the three men, McInnis said, his voice choked with emotion.

“This memorial will give us a collective opportunity to come together as a community, to honour three amazing men, to support their families and each other, and to show their families how much they will be missed,” he said.

A date for the event has not yet been set, but McInnis said it will likely take place in early November.

— By Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver