On The Job - Iowa: Chocolate's Sweet Revenge

Chief Jerry L. Barns
Personnel: Four career firefighters, 22 volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: Three engines, one quint, two tankers, one mini-pumper, one heavy rescue.
Population: 12,000
Area: 120 square miles

At 2 A.M. on March 23, 1999, firefighters in Grinnell, IA, were dispatched to a motor vehicle accident six miles away on Interstate 80. The Grinnell Fire Department is no stranger to managing emergency incidents on the state's busiest thoroughfare, which bisects the Grinnell Fire District. On this incident, however, it would be 12 hours before Grinnell firefighters returned to quarters.

Photo by Steve Meyer
Firefighters had to thrash their way through and spread out hundreds of pounds of burning candy to extinguish it. The sticky residue made for slippery and hazardous conditions.

During those 12 trying hours, Grinnell firefighters found themselves challenged by events that reinforce an everyday tenet in the fire service that even the best-prepared emergency responders will be confronted with the unknown and hampered by factors beyond their control.

Dispatched on the first alarm to this incident were one engine, the department's heavy rescue, a tanker and a dozen firefighters. The incident commander, Fire Chief Jerry Barns, was onboard the heavy rescue.

When the first engine arrived on scene, driver Rob Vest conducted a quick size-up and reported that two tractor-trailer trucks had collided and were heavily involved in fire. Barns immediately requested a pumper, tanker and additional personnel from the Kellogg Fire Department, seven miles away.

On the scene within two minutes, Barns was notified by Jasper County Deputy Sheriff Dennis Stevenson that there may be at least one victim in the cab of one of the trucks. One of the truck drivers had escaped unharmed and was walking around when Grinnell firefighters arrived. That left the other driver unaccounted for, verifying what the deputy had assumed - the other driver was still inside one of the burning trucks.

Strong winds from the northeast blew heavy black smoke across the interstate highway. Neither of the trailers was placarded with any warnings of hazardous contents. All apparatus were strategically positioned upwind from the fire and the interstate was closed to traffic.

Photo by Steve Meyer
A backhoe was used to rake burning product from the trailer load of candy.

An aggressive fire attack was made by Grinnell firefighters on the burning cab in hopes of rescuing the potential victim. The fire was being fed by diesel fuel leaking from damaged fuel tanks, and could not be controlled easily. Flames were suppressed enough to allow firefighters to locate the fatally injured driver of the truck and remove his body.

What Was Burning?

It was at this point, after the rescue priority was accomplished and firefighters turned their efforts to fire control, that the incident presented its greatest obstacles. To be absolutely assured there was nothing hazardous in either trailer, Barns attempted to determine the contents of the trailers. With neither truck placarded and all shipping papers destroyed by the fire, this proved difficult.

By this time, a water shuttle operation was established using Grinnell and Kellogg fire apparatus. Hundreds of vehicles, backed up along the interstate, clogged access to the incident and created difficulty for drivers of tankers supplying the water shuttle operation. Firefighters soon discovered that the fire remained resistive to control efforts, even though four 1 1/2-inch handlines were directed onto the burning trailers. Two foam proportioners on the Kellogg engine were deployed using FFFP (film forming fluoroprotein) foam. The foam had no effect on the fire. Class A foam was then tried, but yielded the same results.

One hour after being dispatched to the incident, Barns was able to contact the shipper and determine that one trailer contained 10,000 pounds of Canopy GL Granular Dispersible Herbicide. Firefighters did succeed in gaining control of this fire before they knew what was in the trailer. Upon inspection, it was discovered that most of the fertilizer was consumed by the fire. Officials from the Iowa Department of Natural Resources (DNR) were now on scene and began taking readings of runoff from the fire, but could detect no fertilizer residue in the water, thereby reliving anxieties about preventing contamination to a nearby stream.

Photo by Steve Meyer
Intense heat from the burning agrichemicals and candy melted the aluminum trailers.

It was the other trailer, and its payload - candy, of all things - that presented firefighters with their biggest obstacle. Contained in this truck were Hershey and Payday candy bars, Reese's Pieces, bubblegum, licorice, Jolly Rancher candy and Hershey's syrup. Firefighters directed hose streams onto the fire raging with inferno intensity in the load of candy, knocked it down and moved in for overhaul only to have the fire rapidly rekindle.

Barns contacted the Hershey company and asked why the fire was so difficult to extinguish. He was informed that chocolate contains cocoa butter - when subjected to high heat, cocoa butter turns into fat, which makes extinguishment difficult. Barns was also told that bubblegum contains latex, which also is difficult to extinguish, and there was a large volume of bubblegum in the trailer.

The only strategy that would work to bring the candy fire under control would be to spread the burning and smoldering product out so that everything could be thoroughly doused. Firefighters succeeded in opening up the trailer by using K-12 saws. A backhoe from the Iowa Department of Transportation was ordered to the scene and raked candy from the truck, then spread it out. When firefighters began soaking the burning and smoldering candy, the runoff resembled hot chocolate. DNR officials informed them the runoff posed no environmental hazard; however, firefighters encountered another hazard at this time - they had difficulty maintaining their footing in the slippery residue left by the burning sweets.

Photo by Steve Meyer
Firefighters refill bottles at the Grinnell heavy rescue truck while Grinnell Fire Chief Jerry Barns talks with a trucking company dispatcher. Kellogg Fire Chief Mike Patterson and Grinnell Safety Officer Ed Sanders are using a U.S. Department of Transportation guidebook to attempt to identify the product and its characteristics when burning.

An estimated 22,000 gallons of water was used to bring this fire under control, with most of the water being used on the trailer load of candy.

Fire's Lessons

In recounting lessons learned from the incident, Barns said every emergency responder should note that just because a truck has no placards or external markings, they should not assume that it is not carrying hazardous materials.

Grinnell firefighters had already learned this lesson. In January 1993, another accident on Interstate 80 sent Grinnell firefighters to a burning tractor-trailer truck that bore no external markings for hazardous materials. To compound their problems, the shipping papers had already been destroyed by the fire, just like they had been at this incident (see Firehouse, January 1995). Only after firefighters uncovered containers that clearly contained hazardous materials during overhaul, and Barns persisted with telephone calls to the freight company's dispatchers, was it positively affirmed that there were indeed hazardous materials on board.

Despite regulations governing the transportation of hazardous materials, even the most cautious firefighters can be placed in harm's way. Regardless of regulations, the only safe concept firefighters can afford to operate by at all vehicle accidents involving a carrier is that the shipment does contain hazardous materials - until proven otherwise.

Steve Meyer has been a member of the Garrison, IA, Volunteer Fire Department since 1981 and has served as chief for 14 years. He is a contract instructor for the National Fire Academy and was the 1998 State of Iowa Firefighter of the Year.