On The Job California: Three-Day Fire Destroys Watsonville Cold-Storage Building

A fire that started on Wednesday, April 20, 2011, and burned for three days destroyed a cold-storage building in Watsonville, CA. Extensive mutual aid was used during the operations. Damage was estimated at $10 million. Building construction and product...


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The last attempt by interior fire attack crews was 200 feet into the structure. Crews reported they could hit some of the surface areas burning on the ceiling, but could not penetrate the seat of the fire. The fire was burning across the interior of the roof and down into the refrigeration compartments. Due to the stock of products stored 20 to 30 feet high on pallets, with extremely tight access along compartment walls, the interior firefighters could not reach the main seat of the fire.

On side C, firefighters gained access to the roof via Central Santa Cruz Fire District Truck 3472’s aerial ladder to trench ventilate from side C to side A. This effort was initiated with hopes to stop the fire at 20% of the structure to let fire, smoke and other products of combustion ventilate at that point, aiding in interior visibility. This would let interior crews back into the structure and access to reach the seat of the fire. The crews were forced off the roof when it burned through at the B/C corner.

Another ventilation attempt was made from the east (D) side. Crews cut inspection holes into the roof to find the main rafters and attempted another trench cut. After crews cut three inspection holes, they found that under the main roofing and sheathing material was about 18 inches of dense cork insulation. This eliminated the ability to perform another trench cut. The time it would take to complete the trench cut and with rate of fire spread and heat, the fire would reach that location before firefighters could be off the roof.

Defensive operations

At 4 P.M., after gathering information from Martin Del Campo and division group leaders, Estrada and Terpstra decided with agreement from the reporting chiefs that defensive tactics would be initiated. There was never a civilian rescue at stake, nor did they want to risk the life of the firefighters going any deeper into the structure when reaching the main seat of the fire was not a possibility.

Johnson requested a third alarm at 4:20 P.M. Aptos Engine 3512, Santa Cruz Central Fire Protection District Engine 3414, Santa Cruz City Fire Department Truck 3170 and Scotts Valley Fire Protection District Engine 2511 responded with 15 personnel, including three additional chiefs. The engines were staged and Truck 3170 was assigned to the rear.

Command requested a fourth alarm at 5:30 P.M. This was a request for an “immediate need strike team” from Monterey County. Aromas Tri-County Fire District Engine 5111, City of Salinas Engine 5313, Presidio of Monterey Engine 6111, Monterey County Regional Fire District Engine 5512 and City of Seaside Engine 6211 responded with 17 firefighters. All fourth-alarm engines were staged on East Beach Street and the crews were assigned to relieve the first, second, and third-alarm crews as they were rotated into rehab for rest.

On-scene monitoring

Firefighting operations used aerial master streams to control the fire as it vented through the roof and two master streams at ground level on side A in an effort to control the fire. The refrigeration engineer for Apple Growers Cold Storage pumped the residual anhydrous ammonia in the system back into the main storage tank. This held the ammonia in one vessel so it could not be released from the high- and low-pressure lines running through the refrigeration system into the cold rooms.

At 7 P.M., a reverse 911 call advised residents of the city and surrounding areas to stay inside if they have respiratory problems. Due to climatic conditions, the smoke in large volumes was traveling and lying low as it moved across the city and some surrounding areas.

At 8:28 P.M., the Santa Cruz Hazardous Material Interagency Team (SCHMIT) was dispatched to the scene with Captain John Gambello from the Scotts Valley Fire District as team leader. On arrival, Gambello received a briefing and assignment from Johnson. Team members set up the computer and took weather readings. Johnson asked the team to take readings around the perimeter of the fire building to check the air/smoke and water runoff from the fire for ammonia and other potential hazards. Monitoring began on side B, then to sides A, D and C. PH paper and the four-gas monitor were used. Side D was the downwind side. All readings from the water and air were negative except for carbon monoxide (CO) from the four-gas monitor. The CO reading reached 39. Gambello obtained an ammonia monitor from a Martinelli employee to monitor the same areas. The readings on the ammonia monitor were all zero. The findings were reported to Martin Del Campo. The crew returned to the hazmat unit for a short rehab and was released from the scene at 2:30 A.M. on Thursday, April 21.