Explosions & Fire Destroy Kansas Tank Farm

On July 17, 2007, explosions and fire at Barton Solvents Inc. destroyed a tank farm consisting of about 40 tanks with capacities ranging from 3,000 to 20,000 gallons each. At the time of the incident, a tank truck containing varnish-makers and painters naphtha was being offloaded and pumped into a 15,000-gallon above-ground storage tank. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) classifies varnish-makers and painters naphtha as a flammable liquid that is used in the painting and coating industries. Barton Solvents packages and delivers solvents and chemical products.

The Valley Center Fire Department was dispatched at 9:11 A.M. to the facility. Two engines and a squad responded with eight firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Lonnie Tormey. Upon arrival, firefighters encountered heavy fire, explosions and heavy black smoke coming from the tank farm. Mutual aid was immediately requested from Sedgwick County Fire District 1 and the Wichita Fire Department. An immediate evacuation of the surrounding area up to a half-mile in all directions was ordered. Exposures included five railcars, a 33,154-square-foot warehouse and office building, and several tractor-trailers.

Sedgwick Quint 32 was positioned at the southeast side of the warehouse and supplied by a 500-foot, five-inch supply line. This unit placed its aerial master stream into operation to protect the warehouse. Firefighters also deployed an unmanned monitor supplied by a five-inch supply line and a blitz attack monitor supplied with a three-inch line from Quint 32. Wichita Engine 1 was positioned north of the tank farm and fed with a 100-foot, five-inch supply line laid by Sedgwick Engine 33 to a hydrant. Wichita Engine 1 placed an unmanned monitor into operation on the north side of the warehouse supplied with a 500-foot, five-inch supply line to protect the five rail cars. The railroad was contacted and removed the rail cars from the area. Once this was completed, the Wichita Engine 1 crew moved the monitor to the west side of the warehouse to protect it from fire.

Additional mutual aid was requested from the Colwich Fire Department, McConnell Air Force Base Fire Department, Boeing Aircraft Company Fire Department and Frontier Oil Refinery Fire Department for foam apparatus and foam supplies. Colwich responded with 85 gallons of AR-AFFF foam that was obtained from Abengoa Co., an ethanol plant in Colwich; Boeing responded with two ARFF crash trucks and a chief's vehicle; McConnell sent one ARFF crash truck and water tender; and Frontier responded with one engine with 1,200 gallons of AR-AFFF foam.

With the arrival of the foam apparatus, incident commanders and plant personnel determined that it would be best to attack the fire from the northeast side. An initial attempt using a Boeing crash truck proved ineffective. This unit was not able to reach the elevated heights that were necessary to extinguish the fire and the unit ran out of water prior to extinguishing the fire.

The Boeing unit was then removed from the area and McConnell's crash truck and tender were moved into position. Valley Center Engine 411 laid a five-inch supply line from a hydrant to a hole cut in the fence along the west side of the complex. Wichita Aerial Platform 1 hooked onto the hydrant and pumped this supply line to Valley Center Engine 411. This engine supplied McConnell's tender, which in turn fed McConnell's crash truck. This time, the fire was attacked from the northwest side of the tank farm. This attempt also was unsuccessful due to the inability to reach and maintain a constant water flow to the tops of the tanks.

Incident commanders decided to make one final attempt to extinguish the fire using an aerial master stream in conjunction with four 1¾-inch handlines. Sedgwick Quint 32 was repositioned to the south side of the tank farm and Frontier's engine was positioned east of the tank farm, south of the warehouse. Lines were placed between Frontier's engine and Quint 32 to allow foam to be pumped to Quint 32. Initially, water was used in an attempt to cool the tanks. Some success was made in cooling some tanks and knocking the fire down, but just prior to switching to foam, one tank exploded, sending the top several feet in the air. This piece of the tank landed on the roof of the warehouse. No fire was impinging on the tank at the time of its rupture. Frontier's master stream and handlines extinguished the fire.

The Wichita Fire Department was released from the scene at 4 P.M. The fire was declared under control at 9 P.M. and Sedgwick was released at 11 P.M. Valley Center remained on the scene until 5 P.M. on July 18. One firefighter suffered heat-related injuries and 11 civilians were treated and released at a hospital for upper respiratory problems.

An investigation of the incident was conducted by the Kansas State Fire Marshal's Office, U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and private insurance company investigators. The Kansas State Fire Marshal determined that the cause was static electricity.

This was a three-dimensional fire posing an unusual set of challenges for responders. The height of the tanks and their close proximity to one another made it difficult to extinguish the fire. Heights of the tanks ranged from 15 to 40 feet. Crash truck turret streams were ineffective because of the tank farm layout. Another problem was getting a sufficient supply of foam to the scene. Incident commanders noted that it is important to have pre-arranged agreements with mutual aid departments, local industry and airports to have an adequate supply of foam for an incident of this type. Training with these outside agencies to understand what resources they have available and how to integrate their equipment with that of the local fire department is an important aspect in pre-incident planning.