A view of the rear of the trailer.
View from the command post shortly after the arrival of Ocala Fire Rescue.
The Ocala ARFF truck moves into position to continue extinguishing efforts.
Captain Shawn Kelley extinguishes the remaining fire.
Gasoline tanker engulfed in flames. The responding battalion chief reported a huge fireball 10 minutes after his arrival.
The city of Ocala is 80 miles north of Orlando, in north-central Florida. Ocala is situated so that many highways transect through the city, including U.S. Routes 27, 301 and 441 and Interstate 75. Ocala Fire Rescue is one of the oldest fire departments in the state, serving its citizens since 1885. Highway motor vehicle collisions and truck fire incidents are no strangers to Ocala firefighters; however, one incident shut down traffic for more than three hours.
On Saturday, May 29, 2010, an 8,800-gallon gasoline tanker caught fire just outside the city limits while traveling northbound on I-75 during the early morning. Traffic was heavier than usual due to the Memorial Day weekend. The driver of the tractor-trailer told fire officials that while driving the fully loaded vehicle, he heard a hissing sound coming from under the dashboard. At about the same time, he looked into the side-view mirror and saw flames coming from a rear wheel of the trailer. The truck slowed and pulled onto the outside shoulder of the highway at mile marker 349.
An approaching sheriff's deputy observed the situation and positioned his car with emergency lights activated to block a segment of the interstate highway. The roadway is a divided highway with a guardrail separating three lanes northbound and three lanes southbound. The deputy exited his vehicle, which was staged several hundred feet south of the tractor-trailer. A passenger vehicle swerved and struck the deputy's vehicle, resulting in a rollover. Three occupants were ejected and two other passengers were hurt. This rollover resulted in two additional vehicles being involved in a collision.
At 2:04 A.M., Marion County Fire Rescue (MCFR) received notification of an incident on I-75 and responded. On arrival, all the fire department units from Marion County stopped at the vehicle collision to render aid. Two patients inside the rolled-over vehicle had to be extricated and a trauma alert was issued for one of the ejected occupants. A ShandsCare Hospital medical helicopter was scrambled as requested. The Marion County sheriff deputy was not injured. Marion County Fire Rescue requested the assistance of the Florida Highway Patrol and Ocala Fire Rescue.
At 2:21, the following Ocala Fire Rescue units were dispatched to handle the truck fire: Battalion 22 Chief Wally Brinkman, Engines 4 and 6, Rescue 4 and a safety officer. The flammable placard on the tanker contained the identification number 1203. The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Emergency Response Guidebook classifies this type of tanker as a TC306, Non-Pressure Liquid Tank, and indicates the contents are "easily ignited by heat, sparks or flames."
Engine 4 arrived on scene a few minutes after being dispatched, and was followed moments later by Engine 6. Each engine carries 1,000 gallons of water and 10 gallons of foam. Personnel from both units pulled handlines to the trailer fire which was now engulfing the rear of the gasoline tanker. It was determined that the driver of the truck had exited the vehicle uninjured and was in a safe location. The tanker was fully loaded, carrying 8,800 gallons of gasoline.
At 2:28, Brinkman arrived to get a briefing and then set up a unified command system with Marion County Fire Rescue. Because of the complexity of the incident and geographical distance involved, it was agreed to establish two separate command posts; one was established for the motor vehicle collision and the other a unified command to handle the tanker fire. An attempt by firefighters to separate the tractor from the trailer was unsuccessful. For safety reasons, command asked the Florida Highway Patrol to shut down all northbound and southbound lanes early in the incident.
Due to worsening fire conditions, command for the tanker fire ordered the firefighters to abandon their hoselines and retreat. A staging area was then established a quarter-mile away. Brinkman special-called for the Ocala Airport Rescue Firefighting (ARFF) truck to respond. This truck carries 1,585 gallons of water, 200 gallons of foam and 500 pounds of dry chemical. The dispatch center alerted the public information officer (PIO), who advised he would be responding. Brinkman reported a huge fireball 10 minutes after his arrival. The PIO responding to the scene observed flames in the sky from about four miles away. At the scene, flames were estimated to be 90 feet into the air. When the ARFF truck arrived at the command post, commanders made the decision to again attack the tanker fire.
The portion of the interstate highway where this incident occurred is in an unincorporated area of the county. The only water available was carried by fire apparatus. The closest fire hydrant was in the city, more than a mile away.
The ARFF truck moved into position and discharged its tank contents. This darkened down the fire just temporarily. Marion County Fire Rescue has in its arsenal of firefighting equipment water tanker trucks. One was requested to respond to the scene to assist in establishing a water supply. An engine company from Ocala and the Marion County tanker then refilled the ARFF truck with water. Radiated heat was so intense from the burning trailer that substantial guardrail wood supports were burning 50 feet from the tractor-trailer.
After the ARFF truck was refilled with water, a second attack was initiated. Once again, the fire quickly gained in intensity when the ARFF truck expended its tank of water. Because the fire could not be quickly extinguished, command decided to let the fire burn off the gasoline to lessen the impact on the environment. The exposures other than the roadway consisted of a grassy and wooded area on the downslope away from the burning tractor-trailer. If the fire could be contained to the immediate vicinity of the trailer, there would be no life hazard or further property damage.
Brinkman determined that the tractor could not be saved and ordered all units to stand down. Every 30 minutes, the Engine 4 crew checked on the status of the fire and the condition of the trailer. Eventually, the entire top of the aluminum trailer had melted, forming a huge bathtub-shaped vessel containing burning fuel. Almost three hours into the incident, the ARFF truck was ordered to expel its third and final load of water. The fire had now diminished in size so that other fire apparatus could safely approach the scene. Hoselines were used to obtain final knockdown. Command let the Florida Highway Patrol reopen all southbound lanes opposite the incident. At 6 A.M., after final extinguishment, the northbound lanes were partially reopened. Heat damage to the asphalt caused a portion of the pavement to melt, resulting in the Department of Transportation keeping a segment closed to vehicular traffic until repairs could be made.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), State Warning Point and DOT were notified early in the incident and dispatched representatives to the site. The PIO was alerted as the seriousness of the incident became known. On arrival, the PIO received a briefing from command, then contacted radio and TV stations about the incident and road closures that would affect traffic for the next several hours. A media staging area was designated in a safe location for media personnel.
A burning gasoline tanker presents a variety of challenges and hazards. The best time to prepare for a gasoline tanker fire in your jurisdiction is before it occurs.
- Life safety is paramount. Consider both the threat to civilians and firefighters.
- A 250-gpm water flow should be established immediately on arrival if there is flame impingement on a tank, to prevent the possibility of a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion).
- This tractor-trailer fire resulted in vehicular traffic being affected for more than three hours on a heavily traveled interstate highway. The only injuries were limited to the civilians involved in the motor vehicle collisions.
- The lack of fire hydrants in the vicinity and water-supply issues resulted in incident command changing from an offensive to a defensive strategy.
- A representative from the EPA who arrived on scene informed fire officials the decision to go defensive and let the fuel burn was the best option for the environment in this scenario.
BRIAN STOOTHOFF is a battalion chief and 28-year veteran of Ocala Fire Rescue. He is currently assigned as a public information officer for the department. Stoothoff holds college degrees in business administration, EMS and fire science. WALLY BRINKMAN is a battalion chief and 21-year veteran of Ocala Fire Rescue. He is assigned as the A Shift Battalion 22 commander. Brinkman holds college degrees in business administration, fire science, EMS and nursing.