On The Job - Iowa: Quick Defensive Attack Controls Hazmat Fire At Des Moines Facility

John Schilling and Jay K. Bradish report on a four-alarm fire at which defensive operations kept flames away from a bulkchemical tank farm and eliminated nearly all of the environmental impact of a chemical spill and contaminated runoff.


On Oct. 29, 2007, a four-alarm fire destroyed a chemical warehouse, loading area and tractor-trailer at the Barton Solvents facility in Saylor Township, Des Moines, IA. By immediately initiating defensive operations, firefighters prevented the fire from spreading to the facility's bulk-chemical tank...


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Command Transferred

Cross requested a fourth alarm at 1:25 P.M. Grimes Engine 3730, an engine from the Polk City Fire Department and Truck 4360 from the Pleasant Hill Fire Department responded. At 1:30, Cross transferred command to Ankeny Deputy Chief John Schilling. The transfer of command was announced over the radio and Schilling began to establish a comprehensive command structure and mitigation plan.

Key chief officers from area fire departments gathered at the command post and assignments were issued. Initially the following sectors were established and assignments were made. Ankeny Lieutenant Mark Dooley, safety; Johnston Lieutenant Chris Jennings, operations; Giudicessi, hazmat; Saylor Ambulance, rehab; Ankeny Captain Steve Udelhofen, staging; Ankeny Captain Matt Porter, interior operations; Polk County Emergency Management Director A.J. Mumm, public information; Polk County Emergency Management Assistant Director Steve Nolan, planning and logistics; and Polk County Sheriff's Department Major Doug Phillips, traffic control and evacuations.

After a careful review of the incident, which included speaking with the management of Barton Solvents, it was determined to evacuate the immediate area. It was also necessary to abandon three apparatus, two of which were flowing water. It was decided to let the two engines continue to flow water unmanned and there was not enough time for Johnston's quint to be removed from the area.

This was a difficult decision for Schilling, since the apparatus were not from his department. This decision was made just prior to the first of several hours of chemical explosions. The fire was spreading into the north warehouse where some 60,000 gallons of liquid chemicals were stored from the loading area. Some of the explosions either erupted in fireballs reaching 300 feet high from the 330-gallon containers or launched 55-gallon drums of burning chemicals 300 feet high and landing up to 200 feet from the storage area.

Personnel Protection

At this time, it was also necessary to move the command post farther from the incident, 600 feet away at the entrance of the facility. Soon after the new command post was established, an officer from a Des Moines Haz/Mat team reported to the incident commander that flames were impinging on three rail tank cars on the east side of the warehouse. It was determined that there were chemicals in the rail cars and there was a possibility of BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). With this information, the incident commander ordered an immediate evacuation of the facility and occupancies adjacent to the Barton property. Nearly 10 other businesses with up to 400 people were evacuated by Polk County Sheriff's personnel. All units operating in the facility compound moved about a quarter-mile upwind of the incident. The new command post was established in the EFCO manufacturing facility parking lot, a quarter-mile southwest of the Barton facility. It was later discovered through information gained from the Union Pacific officials that the products in the three rail cars did not have the ability to BLEVE; in fact, the rail cars would deteriorate from heat before the possibility of a BLEVE would occur. Moving the command post turned out to be a good move, as the new location gave a quieter and more strategic location for all agencies.

A new staging area was established on the east side of the incident. This was intentionally done in order to keep non-essential personnel away from the command post. The staging officer kept the Incident Commander apprised of the resource pool on a regular basis.

For at least 1½ hours, no personnel were allowed into the facility until the explosions and the flying 55-gallon drums ceased. At 3 P.M., two rotating companies of firefighters entered the facility and established an unmanned master stream in the hallway that separated the affected north warehouse and the unaffected south warehouse. Altoona Engine/Tanker 2546 proceeded into the scene, laying a 1,500-foot, five-inch supply line. Another portable monitor was set up between the two warehouses to stop the fire from spreading to the other warehouse. This monitor was supplied with two 2½-inch lines from Engine/Tanker 2546. Ankeny Engine 1231 hooked onto a municipal fire hydrant and pumped the five-inch supply line to Engine/Tanker 2546.