On The Job - West Virginia: Fuel Load, Water Runoff & Manpower Concerns Test Command At Nitro Tire Recovery Site Fire

On The Job — West Virginia By JAY K. BRADISH Fuel Load, Water Runoff & Manpower Concerns Test Command at Nitro Tire Recovery Site Fire

On May 4, 2006, a fire in a multi-tenant commercial building burned out of control for 17 hours in downtown Nitro, WV. The fire caused the evacuation of 1,000 students from Nitro High School, located a block away, and 65 employees of the NAPA warehouse adjacent to the fire building. Over 2,500 residents were ordered to "shelter in place." Route 25, the main highway through town, was closed, making portions of Nitro look like a ghost town.

The 107,000-square-foot building was constructed in 1965 of masonry walls with a concrete floor and ceiling. The roof, referred to as a "tilt up," or "tent," was custom built of concrete to resist an explosion. There were over 50 "tents" making up the roof. The building had one-hour-rated separation walls between the four businesses that occupied the building. These walls were constructed of two-by-fours and Sheetrock. US Tire Recovery occupied approximately 50,000 square feet; 3M Company occupied approximately 40,000 square feet; Rim & Wheel occupied 5,000 square feet; and JMD, a land reclamation company, occupied 2,500 square feet.

Nitro, a suburb of Charleston, the state capital, was built during World War I and expanded during World War II to assist in the war efforts. During these eras, the city saw many nitroglycerin plants established in the city. These plants made explosives for ammunition and bombs. After the wars, many of the plants were converted for use as chemical manufacturing companies. Most of the chemical plants have closed and their operations moved elsewhere, and many buildings and warehouses have been converted to other uses.

With the small size of the Nitro Fire Department - 10 career firefighters and six paid-on-call firefighters - it was necessary to be creative to increase staffing. The neighboring city of St. Albans had the same problem, so in 2000, the Nitro and St. Albans fire departments entered into an automatic mutual aid agreement for response to all possible structure fires. For two small cities that could not afford additional full-time firefighters, it was the perfect solution for placing more firefighters on the scene quicker. It has been standard procedure to serve as each other's rapid intervention teams after arriving on scene and gives first-arriving companies seven to nine firefighters on the initial response. This has greatly improved firefighting capabilities and firefighter safety. Off-duty recall and paid-on-call firefighters provide additional resources.

The Nitro and St. Albans fire departments were dispatched to a reported working structure fire at the US Tire Recovery business at 10:14 A.M. Nitro Engine 853 and Ladder 861 responded with two firefighters under the command of Captain Jeff Elkins. St. Albans responded with Engine 313 and Ladder 311 with five firefighters under the command of Fire Chief Steve Parsons. As Nitro Engine 853 left the fire station two blocks from the fire, Elkins reported a working fire with a large column of black smoke visible. First-in Engine 853 reported heavy fire on the D side of the building with exposure problems. A 50,000-square-foot NAPA Auto Parts distribution warehouse was 30 feet from the D side. Engine 853 was positioned near the A-D corner and supplied by a private hydrant. Hedrick and Parsons were the next two units to arrive on scene. Parsons assumed incident commander duties and Hedrick assumed C-side operations.

Two 2½-inch attack lines were pulled from Engine 853 and an initial attack was initiated from A side, through the JDM portion of the building. At the time, that was where the fire was believed to have originated. St. Albans Engine 313 laid 300 feet of supply line from a hydrant at the corner of 19th Street and Park Avenue to the A side of the building. Parsons requested a second alarm from both departments at 10:23. Mutual aid was also requested from the Institute, Poca and Tyler Mountain volunteer fire departments.

Nitro Ladder 861 was assigned to the C side while St. Albans Truck 311 was positioned on the A side. Nitro Engine 851 and St. Albans Engine 312 were assigned to the C side. Nitro Engine 851 laid a 300-foot supply line from a private hydrant at the B-C corner of the fire building to the middle of side C. A 200-foot supply line was hand-laid to Nitro Ladder 861, which was placed into operation in an effort to protect the NAPA warehouse exposure on the D side. St. Albans Engine 312 was positioned on the C side and its crew, along with the crew from Nitro Engine 851, placed three ground monitors into operation on the C side of the building. Multiple three-inch lines were laid from Engines 851 and 312 to supply the monitors. St. Albans Truck 311 was supplied by a private hydrant at the A-B corner of the fire building. A special request was made to the Dunbar and Teays Valley fire department to send ladder trucks.

Due to the enormous size of the building, command was concerned about tracking firefighters. After both the fire building and the NAPA warehouse had been evacuated, divisions A and C established accountability officers.

Parsons requested additional mutual aid at 10:30 A.M. The West Side Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 224 and Squad 225 with six firefighters; the Lakewood Volunteer Fire Department sent Engine 204 and four firefighters; the Charleston Fire Department responded with an air truck and a fuel re-supply truck; and the Bancroft Volunteer Fire Department responded with Engine 512 and four firefighters.

Putnam County Office of Emergency Services Director Frank Chapman responded to the scene and provided management assistance coordinating the scene. Kanawha County Ambulance responded with four advanced life support (ALS) units and established rehab areas on A and C sides. Johnson was instructed to find enough manpower to be on scene for days. His staff called in 15 additional stations over the following 24 to 36 hours to provide manpower relief.

At approximately 10:45, a portion of the roof on the D side collapsed. All operations were shifted to a defensive mode at this time. The Kanawha County Mobile Command Post was requested at 11:20 A.M. Responding with this unit were County Fire Coordinator P.J. Johnson and County Emergency Services Director Dale Pettry. Teays Valley Truck 711 was positioned on side D, at the rear of the NAPA warehouse parking lot and supplied by a hydrant at 19th Street and Landmark Church. Dunbar Truck 254 was positioned on side C and supplied by Nitro Engine 851.

Four additional ground monitors were placed into operation on side C and directed into the building through the loading dock doors. These additional monitors were supplied by Engines 851 and 312. At this time, it was estimated that 10,000 gpm of water was being applied to the fire. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection arrived on scene at 11:30. Four large-capacity trash pumps were placed into operation to pump the runoff water directly to the Nitro wastewater treatment plant 2,000 feet away on the same street. Initially, storm water drains were diked and covered to prevent the runoff from reaching nearby waterways. Parsons ordered the drains opened as water had risen as much as four feet in the rear parking lot by the loading dock. This was hampering firefighter mobility in the area and there was also a concern that apparatus in the area could become damaged.

At a meeting at 12:50 P.M. between Parsons, Hedrick and Captain Dwight Pettry, who was assigned as operations chief, a decision was made to request an aircraft rescue and firefighting (ARFF) truck and foam from Yeager Airport and the foam supply that was stockpiled by the Local Emergency Planning Council. This consisted of three 130-gallon totes of foam stored on a tractor-trailer in case of a chemical plant fire. Incident commanders discussed two possible scenarios that could happen during foam application. One, water flow would have to be reduced to keep the foam from washing away. By doing this, there was the potential for the fire to spread on the D side and into the 3M warehouse portion of the building. This could also cause an escalation in the fire that had been held in check. Another question was whether enough foam could be applied to the seat of the fire to control it and was enough foam available. The ARFF truck and foam supply arrived at 1:30 P.M.

At 2 P.M., the Air National Guard ARFF truck from Yeager Airport was order to side C to attack the fire with foam using its Snozzle. This unit was supplied by Nitro Truck 861 and Engine 851. After approximately 45 minutes, and the application of 800 gallons of foam, the fire was gaining intensity and the foam application was discontinued. All master streams and monitors were ordered back into operation.

At 3:29 P.M. the "shelter-in-place" order was expanded to 27 city blocks that were downwind of the fire because of the volume of smoke being produced. This was done by the 911 Center using a telephone ringdown system, Emergency Broadcast TV Cable Intercept and Weather Radio Alert Boxes.

Master stream operations continued until 8:30 P.M. with little effect. A local demolition company was contacted and arrived on scene to discuss options for demolishing the building. It was decided to try to open up the C-side wall and pull the tires out of the building. At this time, only 15% of the roof had collapsed. This plan did not work due to the intense heat that prevented the excavation equipment from getting close enough to the building to effectively operate.

Nitro Captain Shawn Alderman then recommended trench cutting the entire building to keep the fire from spreading to the 3M warehouse. Protection lines were placed to protect the heavy equipment operators from the fire. At 10:30, two excavators began moving through the building and removing the roof over US Tire and Recovery. The trench-cut operations were suspended 40 feet from side A after it was determined that the fire had not spread that far and to minimize damage to the wheel-and-rim company on side A. Once the entire pile of tires was uncovered, the four aerial master streams were placed back into operation.

Command declared the fire under control at 3 A.M. on May 5. The fire was declared out at 7 A.M., 21 hours after the initial call. Most mutual aid units were released by noon. St. Albans units left the scene on May 6 at 12:30. The last Nitro unit left the scene at 1 P.M. on May 9. More than eight million gallons of water was pumped by fire apparatus and 800 gallons of AFFF foam was applied. Seven hydrants were used to supply water for firefighting operations. Three private hydrants were found to be inoperative.

Due to oil in the runoff water from the burning tires, 30 sets of bunker gear were ruined and had to be replaced. Also damaged or destroyed were the aerial on Nitro's ladder truck; a thermal imaging camera; various hand tools; numerous portable radios and three portable deck guns that were lost when the building collapsed onto them. The total estimated loss to fire department equipment amounted to $100,000.

A six-day investigation by the West Virginia State Fire Marshal, federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and the state Department of Environmental Protection determined that the cause of the fire was arson. The fire originated inside US Tire and Recovery on side D of the building. Damage was estimated at $3.5 million to the building and $1 million to the contents. There were no reported injuries to civilians or firefighters.

Lessons learned during this incident included:

  • Manpower - Finding enough manpower for an incident of this magnitude was a problem for command. At the time of the fire, most volunteers were working and career departments had limited staffing.
  • Firefighter freelancing - Once crews and apparatus arrive in the staging area, they must remain there so that commanders can maintain fireground accountability.
  • Incident management - Lack of enough command staff to fill the command structure positions; Kanawha County Office of Emergency Services and the Mutual Aid Association are in the planning stages for initiating Incident Management Teams. This will provide enough command staff for large-scale incidents.
  • Communications - Radio communications were difficult with so many different agencies involved in the incident. The mobile command post KC-1 was able to provide interoperability capability for units.
  • Flooding - Low spot flooding in areas around the building made it difficult for personnel to move around and dangerous for apparatus operations. On side A, water runoff was over the exhaust pipes on apparatus and on side C, water was 3½ feet deep. The waste water treatment plant was 2,000 feet from the scene of the fire. This allowed for four six-inch trash pumps to pump the contaminated runoff water into the waste treatment plant.
  • Rehabilitation - Relief for firefighters was accomplished by obtaining two large air conditioned buses from the county transportation agency. Kanawha County Ambulance provided four ALS units and two supervisors to maintain two rehab areas.

JAY K. BRADISH/IFPA, Firehouse® news editor, is a former captain in the Bradford Township, PA, Fire Department. He has been a volunteer firefighter and fire photographer for more than 25 years.