Extinguish or Let It Burn?

Today, fire departments are faced more than ever with the decision of extinguishing a hazardous materials fire or letting it burn and weighing the environmental impact that decision may have. As always, life safety and protection of property are the...


Today, fire departments are faced more than ever with the decision of extinguishing a hazardous materials fire or letting it burn and weighing the environmental impact that decision may have. As always, life safety and protection of property are the primary decisive factors. A common type of...


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Today, fire departments are faced more than ever with the decision of extinguishing a hazardous materials fire or letting it burn and weighing the environmental impact that decision may have. As always, life safety and protection of property are the primary decisive factors. A common type of incident is a gasoline tanker fire. This "let it burn" example is typical when life safety and protection of property do not play a role in the incident.

On Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2009, at 2:10 P.M., Lake Dillon, CO, Fire-Rescue was dispatched to a reported tanker fire at Mile Marker 223 on U.S. Highway 6 over Loveland Pass in Summit County. The steep, winding highway climbs above the timberline to the 11,990-foot mountain pass. This road is the primary hazardous materials transportation route through the county and is frequently the site of accidents and weather closures. Due to limited cell phone coverage in the area, the exact location and extent of the incident were in question. The fully loaded tanker was descending from the summit of the pass just past a sharp right-hand switchback when the trailer tipped and pulled the cab over with it, sliding across the eastbound lane and into a guardrail just at the timberline. It burst into flames and spilled fuel down an embankment. The spilled fuel then ignited, and the flames torched willow bushes while the fuel threatened a small high-mountain stream that forms the Snake River. The river flows into Dillon Reservoir, one of Denver's main drinking-water supplies.

Engine 11, a 1,500-gpm pumper with a four-person crew, responded from Station 11 in Keystone, 7½ miles away. Prior to the incident, Lake Dillon Assistant Chief Bruce Farrell left Station 11 enroute to Denver via Loveland Pass. Minutes after the initial dispatch, Farrell arrived on scene and reported a fully involved tanker truck at Mile Marker 223. Lake Dillon 3/Assistant Chief Kelly Greene and Battalion 8 Chief Travis Davis responded from Keystone. Engine 2 from Frisco was directed to pick up Tender 10, a 2,000-gallon tanker, and Engine 10, a 1,500-gpm pumper, from Station 10 in Silverthorne, 14.6 miles away. Farrell reported that the truck driver had been found and was not injured. He also advised that the truck was carrying flammable liquids consisting of varying amounts of gasoline and diesel fuel. Lieutenant Jason Bell was requested to respond from Dillon, 13 miles away, with Engine 8, a 1,500-gpm pumper, to provide additional manpower. Captain Andrew Hoehn from the Red, White and Blue Fire Department in Breckenridge called from the Frisco area and was directed to report to Station 8 in Dillon for coverage with Engine 7, a 1,500-gpm pumper.

Davis arrived on scene at 2:23 P.M., and established "Loveland Pass Command." Farrell reported that the truck was carrying 3,800 gallons of diesel fuel and 3,500 gallons of unleaded gasoline, and stated that two "BLEVEs" (boiling liquid, expanding vapor explosions) occurred just after he arrived on scene. Greene arrived a short time later and established the command post a half-mile below the crash site.

The primary incident objective was to contain the runoff to prevent it from entering the watershed and apply foam as needed to the brush at the bottom of the slope where the runoff was burning. Engine 11 arrived on scene at 2:34, and was directed to approach the site and give specifics on runoff, extent of fire and involvement of vegetation. This engine also established a drop-tank setup for the tender-shuttle operation just below the crash site. Engine 11 was designated as suppression and proceeded up to the site. Other command officers arrived on scene a short time later and were asked to assist with media, U.S.D.A. Forest Service, environmental health, Denver Water and all other notifications deemed necessary. Eventually, Lake Dillon Fire Chief Dave Parmley returned to the Basin area to assist with communications and Lake Dillon Deputy Chief Jeff Berino was reassigned to a smoke sighting north of Silverthorne.

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