An investigation has been launched after an explosion and fire in an underground electrical vault in downtown Vancouver Friday evening.
“The root cause is really something that we do need to determine,” said BC Hydro spokesperson Mora Scott.
“We have preserved the scene and all of the equipment that was damaged by the fire, and we will send it to a third party for testing.”
Witnesses describe a deafening blast around 6 p.m., followed by flames shooting from the sidewalk outside the JJ Bean coffee shop in the historic Marine Building on Burrard Street near West Hastings Street.
Nicholas Davies was working in an adjoining building when it happened.
“We heard an explosion and some of us saw a flash of light, and couldn’t really figure out where it came from. But it swayed our building and the windows all shook,” said Davies, who added he and his co-workers quickly evacuated the building.
Two people were treated for facial burns and lacerations from the blast.
“That’s right in the sidewalk and six o’clock at night, people are walking home from work, going for dinner. I think we are very fortunate not more people were injured,” said Davies.
As hydro crews worked to clear smoke from the underground electrical vault Saturday morning, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim came by the scene to survey the damage. He said he’d walked past the site late Friday afternoon just minutes before the explosion.
“Our hearts go out to the two individuals that were injured, there could have been more obviously. Really, really thankful that it wasn’t a lot worse,” Sim said, adding that, had the coffee shop been open, many more people could have been hurt.
The mayor said city managers and the fire chief are looking for answers on what could have triggered the blast. Scott said determining the cause is a top property for BC Hydro.
“We have thousands of pieces of underground electrical equipment that we operate safely every single day of the year, and have for decades,” Scott said. “We inspected that piece of equipment less than a year ago, and everything was operating as it should. And that’s why the investigation into the root cause is so important for us right now, and something we are taking incredibly seriously.”
Scott said she wants to assure the public that fires in underground electrical vaults are very rare. There was a similar explosion in January 2021 that sent a manhole cover and large chunks of concrete flying through the air near the Granville Street Bridge.
“As it turned out, in that case, it was actually caused by a third party, a developer in the area was doing some digging. They had tapped out of our underground lines and hadn’t let us know,” Scott said.
It’s too early to say if a third party could be at fault for Friday’s explosion and fire. Scott said damage to the underground electrical vault and the infrastructure above it will take weeks to repair, and the investigation into the cause could take months.