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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Engine 8 arrived on scene and was briefed face-to-face on the objectives. They were assigned to assist with setting up the drop tank, advancing hoselines and mitigating the runoff as directed by the officer on Engine 11, Lieutenant Matt Brewer. Tender 10 and Engine Tender 10 arrived at 2:52. Greene advised the units of their traffic pattern and the fill-site location, three miles below the accident scene at the Arapahoe Basin Ski Area. The drop tank was set up and all crews were in place to mitigate any exposures.

Two Colorado State Police (CSP) hazmat officers arrived on scene and were briefed on the situation. After a thorough walk-through of the site, they confirmed the "let it burn" strategy and requested that an engine and the two tenders remain on scene while the remaining product burned off. At that time, Engine 8 was released to return to Station 8 for coverage which in turn released Engine 7. The driver of the truck was checked out by Summit County Ambulance 3 and later released to a fire department chaplain designee as arranged by Parmley. Lake Dillon Public Information Officer Steve Lipsher arrived on scene and dealt with the majority of the media contacts.

Firefighters used four sandbags and one traffic cone to construct an underflow dam downstream from the incident. Command was transferred to Brewer at 5:30 P.M., with a notification to CSP. Kelly and Davis cleared the scene at this time. Brewer conducted another face-to-face with CSP's hazmat officers and confirmed his action plan. CSP estimated that based on the remainder of fuel left in the tanker, the fire should burn out in 90 minutes to two hours. When the fuel burned out, CSP wanted Engine 11 firefighters to cool the remains of the fire so that the vehicle could be towed from the scene. Command briefed the remaining fire personnel of the action plan and evaluated the condition of the vegetation below the fire. Satisfied that there was no further threat to the vegetation in the area, command requested that the hoseline that had been staged below the fire be pulled back to the road surface for later extinguishment and cooling of the tanker. A second line that had been staged on the far side of the fire for exposure protection was picked up and all other unnecessary equipment was put back in service.

Command sent Firefighter Tom Adams below the fire to evaluate the underflow dam. Adams reported that the dam needed to be reinforced and that he had enough materials at the location to perform the work. Adams confirmed that the dam was functional and returned to the staging area. Approximately one hour later, the fuel fire had burned out and the remaining fire was localized to the tires of the tanker. Command was given the order from CSP to proceed with extinguishment and cooling of the tanker.

Firefighters Mike Waesche and Lou Laurina, wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE), began operations with a 1¾-inch handline. After cooling the front of the tanker, Waesche and Laurina repositioned to the outside of the guard rail to continue effective operations. Feeling that this was an unsafe area to operate from, command called firefighters back to the inside area of the guard rail. Command made contact with Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) officials on scene and requested that they use their front-end loader to pull the tanker from the guard rail so firefighters could safely continue operations. Command met with CSP and advised them of CDOT's actions. Bradley, the Engine 11 engineer, informed command that he was unable to provide Class A foam to the handline due to a clog in the system. Class B foam was flowed for about 10 minutes, which was enough to effectively extinguish and cool the burning tires. After final overhaul of the tanker, CSP was satisfied and advised that the fire department was released. Adams again evaluated the underflow dam and told command that it was working properly. Once all apparatus were back in service, "Loveland Pass Command" was terminated and all personnel cleared the scene at 7:12 P.M.

The 3,800 gallons of diesel fuel and 3,500 gallons of unleaded fuel were allowed to burn off without taking direct suppression action since it was confined to the accident scene. Any substantial application of water and foam would have resulted in downstream contamination due to the runoff of the water and unburned fuel. There was little threat of the fire spreading to the surrounding vegetation and the weather conditions were favorable to containing it to the roadway and unpaved shoulder with minimal burn over down the embankment.