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On Friday, June 11, 2010, a two-alarm fire destroyed an abandoned meat-packing plant in Bernalillo County, NM. The fire caused the evacuation of 250 workers and residents from neighborhoods around the facility.
Even though the facility had been abandoned for several years, two 750-gallon anhydrous ammonia storage tanks on the site still contained a total of approximately 1,250 gallons of product. Utilities consisting of natural gas and three-phase commercial electric were still active to the building. Much of its internal electric service had been stripped of copper by vandals, but was still live.
The plant was built in the mid-1960s, mostly of steel-frame construction with some wood-frame areas. Its cold-storage area was built of insulated masonry. The roof consisted of corrugated steel in some areas and wood covered with asphalt in other areas. The main building measured approximately 20,000 square feet. There were no fire protection or detection systems in the buildings.
The Bernalillo County Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire at the vacant Karler Meat Packing Plant at 9111 Broadway Blvd. at 10:09 A.M. Engines 32, 33 and 34, all 2,000-gpm pumpers; Truck 38, a 75-foot aerial ladder with a 2,000-gpm pump; Rescues 38 and 33, Fire Marshal’s Office (FMO) 33 and Battalion 5 responded with 21 firefighters under the command of Battalion Chief 6 Scott Aragon, who was the incident commander, and Battalion Chief 5 Jim Dye, who was Operations Chief.
Aragon requested a second alarm at 10:18 A.M. Responding were Bernalillo County Engines 36, 40 and 46, all 2,000-gpm pumpers; Medium Rescue 46; Tanker 31, a 2,000-gallon tanker with a 1,000-gpm pump; Tanker 33, a 2,000-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; Tanker 35, a 1,800-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; Tanker 41, a 1,800-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; Tanker 46, a 1,500-gallon tanker with a 1,000-gpm pump; and Tanker 46A, a 2,500-gallon tanker with a 250-gpm pump.
Mutual aid was requested from several departments at this time. The Bosque Farms Fire Department responded with two personnel; the Isleta Pueblo Fire Department responded with Engine 1, a 1,000-gpm pumper, Brush 1 and Tanker 5, a 2,500-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; the Los Chavez Fire Department responded with Tanker 72, a 3,000-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; the Tome Fire Department responded with Tanker 2, a 2,000-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; the Rio Rancho Fire Department responded with Tanker 2, a 2,500-gallon tanker with a 1,000-gpm pump; the Corrales Fire Department responded with Tanker 95, a 2,000-gallon tanker with a 500-gpm pump; the Sandoval County Fire Department responded with Tanker 22, a 3,000-gallon tanker with a 1,000-gpm pump; the Albuquerque Fire Department responded with Squad 3; and the U.S. Air Force 64th Civil Service Team (CST) responded from another hazardous materials incident near Silver City.
On arrival, Engine 33 and Rescue 33 reported fire visible on the B side of the building, where the meat-processing and cold-storage areas connect. The only individual working on-site had left the fire area on his own before the arrival of the fire department. Of immediate concern were life-safety issues of firefighters, building construction, the layout of the building, rapid fire spread, initial reports of large amounts of anhydrous ammonia in storage tanks, a maze of overhead electric lines and an industrial-sized natural gas meter still supplying natural gas to the building.
Evacuations of the surrounding area were begun immediately by the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department using the reverse-911 system. A construction business on the D side and the entire “Mountain View” community were evacuated, as they were in the projected plume path model for an ammonia release.
Engine 33, Truck 38 and Rescue 33 arrived on scene at 10:23 A.M. and were positioned on side B. Initial water supply was from Engine 33’s 1,000-gallon booster tank and Engine 34’s 750-gallon booster tank. Firefighters placed a 200-foot, 1¾-inch attack line into operation from Engine 34 and a 200-foot, 2½-inch attack line from Truck 38. Initial entry was made on side B near the point of origin in a corridor separating the freezers from the slaughterhouse. Smoke was showing, but crews discovered major fire conditions overhead deep inside the building.
Lieutenant Michael Garcia of Engine 33 ordered the interior crews to evacuate the building at 10:40 A.M. and switched to defensive operations. An aerial master stream from Truck 38 and Engine 34’s deck gun were placed into operation on side B. On side D, the aerial master stream from Truck 31, Engine 32’s deck gun and a three-inch monitor were placed into operation. Master streams and handlines were initially directed into this mechanical area which contained the ammonia storage and pipe works. Early suppression in this area prevented a major release.
Two tender fill sites were established. Bernalillo County Engine 37 established a fill site at a hydrant at 2nd and Desert streets, 2½ miles from the incident. Bernalillo County Engine 51, from the fire academy, established the second fill site at a hydrant at 4101 Broadway, nearly four miles away.
Two dump sites were established at the scene. The initial dump site was on Broadway on side A of the building. Fourteen dump tanks were set up, including six 2,500-gallon tanks. Engine 34 was used as the primary draft engine supplying Engine 33 and Truck 38 on the B side. The one large draft site became congested, impeding the water supply operation for the B and D sides. A second dump site was established to support the north-sector operations. Four 2,500-gallon dump tanks were set up in the parking lot of Sandbar Construction. Engine 51 was relocated from the second fill site to the scene to draft and supply Engine 32 and Truck 31 on the D side. Additionally, Bernalillo County Public Works provided a 5,000-gallon tanker and a 12,000-gallon tanker to assist in the tanker shuttle.
Isleta Engine 1 and Brush 1 provided exposure control at the Sandbar Construction business on the D side of the fire. These units also provided wildland fire suppression in the open area surrounding the meat packing plant.
Dye declared the fire under control at 1:52 P.M. Primary operations were demobilized at 3 P.M. with the mutual aid departments being released first. The last Bernalillo County unit left the scene at 3 P.M. on June 13.
Ninety-seven firefighters operated seven engines, two aerials and 14 tankers. Approximately one million gallons of water was needed for extinguishment, all of which was transported in tanker-shuttle operations. Firefighters maintained a water flow of 4,500 to 6,000 gpm for approximately seven hours. The temperature was 79 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of the alarm; the peak temperature, not counting heat indices, was 88°F. The winds were 15-20 mph, peaking at 30 mph. The relative humidity was 15-20% at the time of the alarm, and the relativity humidity dried out to about 10% in the afternoon.
Investigators from the Bernalillo County Office of the Fire Marshal, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), New Mexico State Police and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office immediately began an origin-and-cause investigation. First-arriving fire companies and the building’s owner reported an individual was working inside salvaging metal. It was determined that the worker was using a cutting torch to salvage the metal. The worker was interviewed and provided information as to where and when he was working.
- Initial water supply – The initial water supply was a huge problem, but also turned into a major success with the use of the tanker shuttle.
- Anhydrous ammonia – The main issue was the potential for a massive release from two 750-1,000-gallon liquid storage tanks. Risk vs. benefit? Big risk, big benefit. The reality was that the fire department was not prepared for this type of situation and lacked any type of ammonia detector. Creatively, a local chemical wholesaler, DPC Chemical, lent the fire department several “ammonia kits” that gave the fire department confidence to lift the massive evacuation that was in place for the community. Ultimately, the 64th CST group brought the most advanced equipment, which was able to detect a very small leak in a valve and also confirm that a massive release was not in progress or imminent.
- Natural gas supply – The natural gas supply was active and flowing into the building. This was a likely cause of some of the rapid fire spread. The only way to shut it off was by the gas company capping the line because all of the valves were seized and flowing. Never assume utilities to an abandoned building have been turned off.
- Firefighter rehabilitation – One firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion. Although firefighter accountability was good, this firefighter was working in an area that required full protective clothing and an airpack. There are a lot of questions with rehab, hydration and fitness of firefighters. Did firefighters pre-hydrate before their shift? Were firefighters hydrating through the course of the incident? Did firefighters rotate too long? Although the firefighter fully recovered, the department is revamping its entire rehabilitation program. A complete overhaul of the firefighter rehab program is underway through the department’s Safety Committee and Local 244.
- Fireground control – Combining the rehab area with the command post was a mistake. The command post must be kept separate from all distractions.
- Incident command – The Incident Command System (ICS) and Personnel Accountability System (PAS) were implemented to bring the incident to a successful conclusion.
- Water supply – This operation was a testament to the driver/engineer program and good training. The department has been proficient through the years with rural water supply and drafting operations, and maintains that proficiency through its driver/engineer program. The Training and Special Operations Division has consolidated multiple drop tanks, jet siphons and other needed equipment to create a “big water” unit.
- Going defensive – The initial crews made a difficult decision. Credit that to good training and the unfortunate lessons learned from the Dec. 3. 1999 cold-storage warehouse fire in Worcester, MA, in which six firefighters were killed (see the March 2000 issue of Firehouse® for complete coverage of the fire and its aftermath).
- Collapse zones – The building imploded. Although firefighters prepared for an ugly collapse, the building fell in on itself. Firefighters respected the collapse zones and operated as close to the corners as possible.
- Handling hazardous materials – Anhydrous ammonia was a problem. The manner in which it was handled was also one of the incident’s greatest successes. The department is in the process of improving its air-monitoring equipment and corresponding standard operating guidelines (SOGs). The department is also improving its relationship and training with the 64th CST with more comprehensive training planned. Hazmat operations and air-monitoring procedures are under review.