Meet the master blaster

Ken House's infatuation with explosives started with a bang. The spark was innocuous enough: one summer day while growing up in Penticton, BC, his father asked him to dig the family's garden.

Ken House’s infatuation with explosives started with a bang.

The spark was innocuous enough: one summer day while growing up in Penticton, BC, his father asked him to dig the family’s garden.

House, then 12, decided to do it with black powder.

Making the stuff was easy enough. House already had his head deep in the Blasters’ Handbook, and he knew he only needed sulphur, saltpeter and a little charcoal.

Making a fuse was no problem, either. He just needed more saltpeter, some sugar and butchers’ cord.

He mixed the batch, poured it in holes he’d dug, and lit the fuse.

The resulting explosion was big enough to blow out neighbourhood windows within a two-block radius.

Afterwards, House became handy at glazing windows. He also acquired a knack for picking fruit – a job he needed to pay for the replacement glass, putty and stops.

Today, House is 65 and still preoccupied with blowing stuff up. He’s the president of Canadian Explosives Technology Incorporation, a Whitehorse-based company that began offering blasting courses this summer.

The impetus for his company’s creation was the botched blast that sent rocks raining down on Lobird Trailer Park on May 6, 2008.

Sidhu Trucking and its blast supervisor were later both fined more than $50,000 for endangering workers and residents.

The accident would have been entirely preventable, said House, had the workers used blasting mats, which are used to weigh down loose rocks.

“It can comprise of anything from tires chained together to heavy coconut fibre matting,” said House.

“They were available. They were there. If they’d been used, there would of been no fly rock into Lobird Trailer Park.”

House has, quite literally, written the book on handling explosives: The Blasters’ Training Manual for Farmers, Ranchers, Prospectors, Engineers and Small Construction Workers. The book forms the basis of his course curriculum.

He also wrote the Canadian military’s explosives training manual. And, when the FLQ began sending bombs in parcels through the mail in 1970, House helped thwart them, as a contract member of the RCMP’s counterterrorism bomb squad.

“I dislike mailboxes immensely,” he said. “I won’t go near them.”

Later, when a Soviet, nuclear-powered spy satellite fell to earth and broke apart above Great Slave Lake in January of 1978, the RCMP called on House to help guard the radioactive wreckage.

He hasn’t been harmed by an accidently detonated charge throughout his career. “I still have all 10 fingers,” said House.

But he’s missing an eye. He didn’t lose it on the job. Instead, it was during a hunting trip in pursuit of a full-curl ram near Annie Lake Road in 1977.

“It’s the Good Lord’s way of saying, ‘Thou shalt not hunt my sheep,’” said House.

House moved to Whitehorse in the late 1960s. He left in 1979 to work at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, where he designed and taught the commercial explosives course.

Then, one day in 1982, he suffered a massive brain aneurysm in class.

He wasn’t expected to live. He did, but he spent the next three and a half years in hospital.

Then he wasn’t expected to walk. It took House another three and a half years to prove the doctors wrong once again, and get back to blasting.

House has spent more than a decade working with mining companies in the territory. Most recently, in 2008, he helped set off charges at the Ketza Mine site near Ross River.

But these days he’s focused on ensuring that the Yukon’s next generation is able to set off explosives safely.

House is heartened that two of the four people who graduated from his course this summer are First Nations women. He worked with female blasters at a coal mine in Tumbler Ridge, BC, in 2005, and reckons they had more sense than many of their male counterparts.

“As far as I’m concerned, they were the safest blasters I’ve ever run into,” he said.

“I’m trying to kick the door wide open in a male-dominated profession and get women involved.”

The course spans 80 hours and costs $6,000. Luckily, for the Yukon’s First Nation residents, funding is available through the Yukon Mine Training Association.

Graduates must still work under a competent blaster for a length of time – between three months to one year – before they’re able to write an exam for a certificate to “fly solo.”

House doesn’t teach his company’s courses. But he checks in regularly.

Lately he’s had a few health scares. Doctors have found blood clots in his lungs.

That, combined with bronchial pneumonia, means he needs to avoid laughing while telling the more humorous parts of his own story, lest he trigger a nasty coughing fit.

House trained under the federal government’s chief mines inspector for several years. Today, many blasting apprentices aren’t so lucky, as aging pros disappear.

“They’re retiring,” said House. “And a lot of them don’t want to go underground anymore.”

His course is meant to fill that gap. “We’re the only company west of Fleming, Ontario, teaching a course of this nature,” said House.

As it stands, he’s concerned many young people aren’t aware of the power of explosives.

“Are you aware that every litre of gasoline you pump into your gas tank is equal to 28 sticks of dynamite?” he asked.

“That’s why you’re warned to never go back in your vehicle, once you start pumping. You can create enough static electricity right there that, the minute you touch the pump, the spark arcs from you to the gas tank, and it just goes whoosh.”

That’s more or less how a microwave tower was set ablaze at Stewart Crossing in 1978, said House.

“The young fellow filling the generator storage tanks hadn’t clipped the ground wire to the tank before he started pumping. He lost 50,000 gallons of fuel oil. Plus he lost his rig and burned down the microwave tower. I think we bombed the Stewart Crossing tower with retardant three times.”

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