Be Ready for "The Big One"

Nov. 30, 2009
On Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed two buildings at the White Oil Co., a division of Michigan Petroleum Technologies, in Vienna Township, MI. Building one, (the original fire building), built in 1973, was a 128-by-70-foot warehouse with an 18-by-46-foot loading dock. Building two, built in 1998, contained a 20-by-80-foot office area; a 125-by-80-foot warehouse; and a 50-by-80-foot warehouse addition built in 2000. Both buildings were site-built steel warehouse-type structures with steel clear span roof beams and steel roofs.

On Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2009, a multiple-alarm fire destroyed two buildings at the White Oil Co., a division of Michigan Petroleum Technologies, in Vienna Township, MI. Building one, (the original fire building), built in 1973, was a 128-by-70-foot warehouse with an 18-by-46-foot loading dock. Building two, built in 1998, contained a 20-by-80-foot office area; a 125-by-80-foot warehouse; and a 50-by-80-foot warehouse addition built in 2000. Both buildings were site-built steel warehouse-type structures with steel clear span roof beams and steel roofs. There were no fire detection or suppression systems in the buildings.

White Oil is in a sparsely populated area with no businesses or residences to the south toward Wilson Road and only the Pine Hill Golf Driving Range and Siding World to the north on the east side of the road and Clio Sand and Gravel on the west side of the road toward Tobias Road. To the northeast, Tobias Road is the first residential area.

The Clio Area Fire Department (CAFD) is a "fire authority" for three municipalities — City of Clio, Thetford Township and Vienna Township — in Genesee County. Chief Gary Domerese commands the 65-member paid-on-call department that responds out of two stations and covers a 72-square-mile area with a population of 22,000.

CAFD Stations 1 and 2 were dispatched at 3:30 P.M. for a commercial structure fire at White Oil at 11134 and 11136 North Saginaw Road by the Genesee County 911 Dispatch Center. Engine 11 and Pumper/Tanker 17, with its 2,000-gallon tank, responded from Station 1. Engine 21, Pumper/Tanker 25 (2,000-gallon tank) and Squad/Air 28 responded from Station 2 with 17 firefighters. Station 1 Battalion Chief Kirk Todd and Captain Bob Mansfield responded along with Domerese. The CAFD responds from both stations on all structure fires in the fire district and Aerial 12, a 100-foot aerial platform with a 1,500-gpm pump, responds on all commercial responses as a standard operating procedure. Aerial 12 did not respond until 3:48, as a driver and operator were not immediately available.

Todd and Mansfield arrived on scene at 3:34 and reported a "working fire" in the building at 11136 North Saginaw. On arrival, fire was visible in two west windows (windows 1 and 2) on the south side of the pedestrian door on the A (west) side of the building. Heavy, black smoke was issuing from overhead doors on the D (south) and C (east) sides of the building. The smoke was traveling southwest to northeast and moving freely through the building. Overhead doors on the C and D sides were open due to the high outdoor temperature. All four company employees had evacuated the building.

Engine 11 arrived at 3:35 and was positioned on side A of the fire building. The Engine 11 officer, Lieutenant Jeremy Kline, was directed to hook the hydrant at the north side of the property and have firefighters put four 1¾-inch attack lines into operation through the A-side windows. Kline went around the fire building and saw heavy black smoke coming out of the east door. Pumper/Tanker 17 laid a 700-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant to supply Aerial 12 when it arrived on scene. Kline then used the crew from Pumper/Tanker 17 to remove glass from additional windows on side A.

Domerese arrived at 3:39 and took command. He assigned Todd as operations officer and Mansfield as safety officer. Domerese and Todd heard a sound like popcorn popping and small projectiles were coming out the windows on side A. It was later discovered that fire had advanced to an area where 10,000 aerosol cans of petroleum products, including WD-40, carburetor cleaner and brake cleaner, were stored just inside the window.

Initial Mutual Aid

At 3:35 P.M., Todd requested mutual aid from the Mount Morris City and Genesee Township fire departments. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11, a foam-capable pumper with a crew of five, and Genesee Township Pumper/Tanker 29-12, with a 2,000-gallon tank and a crew of five, responded to the scene. Todd also requested the evacuation of residents on Tobias Road (a quarter-mile from the fire) between Saginaw Road and Berkshire Drive. Genesee County 911 used the Reverse 911 System to alert homeowners in the affected area.

Engine 21 and Tanker 25 laid a 700-foot, five-inch line from a hydrant south of the incident to the scene to supply Engine 44-11. Squad 28 was positioned on the west side of Saginaw Road, in the south driveway of Clio Sand and Gravel, to act as the staging/rehab area and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) fill station. Clio Station 2 Battalion Chief Kevin Bloss was assigned as the staging officer. Later, Bloss would be assisted by Deputy Chief George Taylor of the Montrose Fire Department as part of the Greater Clio Area Fire Chiefs Emergency Coordination System.

Domerese retrieved the pre-fire plans from Squad 28 and met with Todd to review them. The fire building contained products in 55-gallon drums, case goods, and 275-gallon and 330-gallon plastic totes in steel baskets. It also contained five 2,000-gallon, seven 4,000-gallon and nine 4,500-gallon bulk storage tanks. The nine, 4,500 gallon tanks had a concrete containment dike around them, but the others did not. These bulk storage tanks contained motor oil, automatic transmission fluid, hydraulic oil, lubricants and gear oil.

The exposed building 35 feet south of the fire building contained the business offices (in the west end) as well as storage of case goods and five-gallon containers in the second bay, and 55-gallon containers in the remaining six warehouse bays. Unknown to command at the time, the exposed building contained 30 55-gallon drums of methanol (mineral spirits). Sixty feet to the southeast of the exposed building were three above-ground storage tanks within an earth berm containment area. Two 25,000-gallon tanks contained diesel fuel and one 15,000-gallon tank contained regular unleaded gasoline. Each diesel tank contained 5,000 gallons of product and there were 4,000 gallons of gasoline in the other storage tank.

Domerese requested the Genesee County Hazardous Materials Team to the scene at 3:43 and the Genesee County Association of Fire Chiefs (GCAFC) Emergency Coordination System activated at 3:49. Clio Area Assistant Chief Kerry Paulson arrived at 3:50 with Squad 16 and was assigned as hazardous materials liaison to keep command informed of all product-runoff and air-quality issues. Paulson was later assigned as the public information officer as well. Aerial 12 arrived at 3:50 P.M. and was positioned on Saginaw Road. This aerial was set up to begin aerial master stream operations on side A of the fire building supplied by the five-inch hydrant line laid by Clio Pumper/Tanker 17. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11 was positioned in the driveway between the two buildings. Crews stretched a 100-foot, 2½-inch handline from Engine 44-11 to the D-side overhead door and attacked the fire there.

At 4 P.M., Jim Vogt from Mount Morris Township Station 1 arrived on scene as the lead coordinator for the GCAFC Emergency Coordination group and reported to the command post. It was decided to request 20 additional personnel to the scene and aerial ladder trucks capable of delivering foam. Additional foam supplies were also requested. Primary staging was established at Firemen's Park on Wilson Road, a half-mile southeast of the fire.

At 4:05 P.M., a large tracked excavator with grappling jaws was requested to pull the northwest section of the building apart to try to gain better access to the fire. Young's Environmental Emergency Response responded to the scene, as its personnel have bunker gear and their equipment is equipped for SCBA. When they arrived on scene at 5:15, the fire had increased and the building condition deteriorated to the point of being unable to complete the task.

Engine 21 was directed to side C of the fire building and placed two 2½-inch attack lines into operation to provide exposure coverage from the east. This engine was supplied by a 400-foot, five-inch line from Mount Morris City Engine 44-11. At 4:20, Ed Blight, a Genesee County Hazardous Materials Team supervisor, reported to the command post. During a discussion with Domerese, he was advised of the Vienna Drain, which was the only water course of immediate concern. This runs northeast to southwest 400 feet behind the fire building. After Blight checked the Vienna Drain, it was discovered to be dry. The Vienna Drain flows northeast to Pine Run Creek, which flows into the Flint River. Through a series of other rivers, the water eventually ends up in Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Genesee County Hazardous Materials Team Supervisor Jim Lincoln met with the owners and obtained all Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the site.

At 4:10 P.M., it appeared the fire was being controlled, but suddenly flaming petroleum product began running out the D-side overhead door of the fire building. It is believed that the plastic containers in steel baskets had failed and were letting burning product spread throughout the building. Aerial 12 and the crew from Engine 44-11 began applying water and foam to keep the fire from reaching the exposed building and the containers of product stored on side B of the exposed building.

At 4:32 P.M., Domerese ordered hand-line crews to pull back from the fire and that the attack would be strictly defensive using aerial trucks and a four-inch deluge gun from Mount Morris City. A secondary five-inch supply line was connected to Aerial 12 from Clio Engine 11, which was connected to a hydrant north of the fire scene. When it was determined that the fire building was beyond saving, all efforts were put into protecting the exposed building, which contained offices as well as storage of case goods and five-gallon container storage in the second bay, and 55-gallon container storage in the remaining six bays. Todd advised the owners to accompany fire personnel into the 11134 building and remove all computers and records that were required.

Genesee County Sheriff Department Sergeant Tom Pyles arrived at the command post and it was agreed that the Sheriff's Department would handle all evacuations and road closings. Periodically throughout the evening, Pyles returned to the command post with updates and to discuss changes to evacuations and road closings. The Genesee County Road Commission was requested to bring barricades to the area to assist with the multiple road closures and control traffic. At 4:38, Domerese asked Consumers Energy to shut down all primary (14,000-volt) lines on Saginaw Road in front of the fire building due to use of aerial trucks to try to control the fire and protect the 11134 building.

Mount Morris Township Aerial Ladder 37-A15 arrived at 4:50 P.M. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11 was moved to the front of the 11134 building to let Mount Morris Township Ladder 37-A15 position in the entrance of the driveway between the two buildings. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11 was supplied by the five-inch hydrant line from the south side of the incident and fed Mount Morris Township Ladder 37-A15 with foam. Mount Morris City firefighters positioned their four-inch deluge gun monitor between the two buildings to apply foam on the tanks on side B of the exposed building which was supplied by Engine 44-11. Foam began arriving in five-gallon pails and 55-gallon drums from nine fire departments and two private companies. It was staged directly across the street from the fire.

Water Supply

It was determined that the hydrant to the south of the incident was going to be of little use as the use of the two hydrants north of the incident were using the majority of the water before it could reach the hydrant on the south. The 12-inch water main flows from the north and dead ends at Wilson Road. Genesee County Water and Waste was requested to boost the pressure on the water main system. The utility increased the pressure, but was limited because of it feeding through the city of Clio and would cause water main failures in older parts of the city. A water tender (tanker) shuttle operation using three 2,000-gallon portable tanks was set up on Saginaw Road in front of the exposed building. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11 drafted out of the portable tanks and supplied Mount Morris Township Station 1 Aerial Ladder 37-A15 with a 100-foot, five-inch line. Genesee Township Assistant Fire Chief Curtis St. John was assigned as water supply officer and established the shuttle/portable tank operation.

At 5:10 P.M., mutual aid for manpower, equipment and foam was requested from 15 fire departments in seven counties. Departments from Genesee, Lapeer, Tuscola, Saginaw, Shiawassee, Livingston and Oakland counties responded. The Genesee County response included Mount Morris Township Station 1 Engine 37-11 to Clio Station 1 for standby and Aerial 37-A15, a 75-foot aerial ladder, and 2,500-gallon Tanker 37-12 to the scene; the Flushing Township Fire Department command trailer and 5,000-gallon Swartz Creek Tanker 44-23 to the scene and Squad 41-16 to primary staging; Grand Blanc Fire Department Engine 32 and Burton City Fire Department Engine 23-31 to primary staging; 2,500-gallon Mundy Township Tanker 38-11 to the scene and Squad 38-18 to secondary staging; 3,000-gallon Forest Township Fire Department Tanker 39-14 to the scene; 2,000-gallon Montrose Township Fire Department Tanker 35-13 to the scene; 2,500-gallon Gaines Township Fire Department Tanker 49-12 to the scene; Fenton Township Fire Department Engine 14 to the scene; and Davison/Richfield Fire Department responded with 110 gallons of foam. Saginaw County's response included Frankenmuth Fire Department Engine 2 and Aerial 3, a 100-foot platform, to the scene; Maple Grove Township Fire Department 3,000-gallon Tanker 5 to the scene; a Birch Run Township Fire Department chiefs vehicle to the scene with 65 gallons of foam; Bridgeport Fire Department Utility Truck 7 to the scene with 55 gallons of foam; Buena Vista Fire Department Utility Truck 5 to the scene with 195 gallons of foam; and Taymouth Township Fire Department Brush Truck 2 to the scene with 175 gallons of foam. Shiawassee County fire departments responding included tankers from the Venice and Hazelton fire departments, but these units were canceled before they reached the scene. The Millington Fire Department from Tuscola County sent 3,000-gallon Tanker 1 to the scene. The Otter Lake Fire Department from Lapeer County responded with 2,500-gallon Tanker 14-31.

Genesee County Emergency Management Director Tami Yorks contacted Domerese to discuss the need for a temporary emergency operations center (EOC). Domerese declined at that time, but as the event escalated, it was decided to open the EOC at Clio Station 1. At 5:30 P.M., due to the intense smoke conditions, the Genesee County Sheriff's Department increased the evacuation area by extending it 1½ miles to the east to Bray Road.

Containers Explode

At 5:32, a 330-gallon steel tank jettisoned out of the fire building and traveled 135 feet north, landing in the driveway of the Pine Hill Golf Driving Range. The tank, which was believed to contain way lubricant, was allowed to burn out. At 6:07, a second BLEVE (boiling liquid, expanding vapor explosion) sent two 330-gallon steel containers of way lubricant several hundred feet into the air. Shortly thereafter, projectiles could be heard crashing through the roof of the exposed building.

At 6:09, Domerese ordered all firefighters to immediately evacuate the fire area. Hoselines were disconnected from apparatus and all personnel and apparatus were moved away from the scene. Clio Police Chief Jim McLellan advised Domerese by cell phone of 3,000 people in the Clio Amphitheater for a concert. The amphitheater is one mile from the fire scene. The wind direction was constantly changing and there was concern that the smoke plume could move over the area of the amphitheater.

The Frankenmuth Fire Department arrived on scene at 6:17 P.M. with Engine 2, a foam-capable pumper, and Aerial 3. It had been determined by this time that there was not sufficient water supply on the 12-inch main to supply another aerial. Frankenmuth personnel connected Engine 2 to Clio Aerial 12 and began applying foam to the fire. At 6:28, Aerial 12 was moved to the B side of the 11136 building to set up master stream operations. Aerial 12 was supplied for a short time by Frankenmuth Engine 2 with a 100-foot, five-inch line. It was then decided to connect Aerial 12 directly to the hydrant line, shut off the truck and operate off hydrant pressure so that all personnel could be removed from the scene. All other fire operations were suspended and would remain so until 7 A.M. on Wednesday, Aug. 5. Clio Aerial 12 remained in this position from 7 P.M. until 7 A.M. on Aug. 5. At 6:30 P.M., the temporary EOC was established at Clio Station 1. The American Red Cross notified command that an evacuation shelter had been opened at Trinity Assembly of God Church on Mount Morris Road and Interstate 75 at 6:48.

At 6:50, the primary electric lines were turned off and the wind direction had shifted to the south/southeast. Due to wind shift and increased amounts of smoke, the evacuation area was increased to Vienna Road on the north, Center Road on the east, Frances Road on the south and Saginaw Road on the west. Due to the wind shift and smoke, the primary staging area was moved to Clio Station 1, a half-mile away. Jim Helmstetter, director of environmental health services for the Genesee County Health Department, arrived at the command post and discussed the air quality and smoke. After some discussion, Helmstetter went to the EOC to work with Yorks. The command post was moved to the Clio Sand and Gravel office parking lot.

At 7:50 P.M., Domerese terminated the GCAFC Emergency Coordination and released all mutual aid departments. At 7:53, Domerese requested the Michigan State Police Fire Marshal respond to the scene because of the expected large fire loss.

Air Monitoring

At 8 P.M., Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 On-Scene Coordinator Jon Gulch arrived at the command post to discuss the air-monitoring plan. The Oakland County Hazardous Materials Team was assigned to assist him. Seven multi-gas meters and two particulate monitors were to be deployed overnight in the downwind direction. At 9:25, the wind direction changed again, blowing from northeast to southwest and requiring a further evacuation. During the first six hours of the fire, the wind shifted 180 degrees. The total evacuation area at the height of the incident was 18 square miles.

Domerese returned to the EOC to confer with Yorks regarding the incident situation, air monitoring, evacuations and the operational plan for the next 12 hours. At 1:26 A.M. on Aug. 5, all remaining personnel were sent home for the night. At 6 A.M., Domerese arrived back at the EOC to meet with Yorks, Helmstetter, Gulch and WEYI meteorologist Mark Terrigrosa to discuss the smoke, wind direction and evacuation area. It was decided to leave the existing evacuation in place for several more hours and re-evaluate conditions at 11 A.M.

At 7 A.M., Domerese asked both Clio fire stations to return to the scene to extinguish the fire. The fire had continued to burn through the night with most of the product in the original fire building being consumed. Significant fire still remained in the second building. The two 25,000-gallon diesel fuel and one 15,000-gallon gasoline above-ground storage tanks were intact, although significant charring was observed at the loading and unloading connections. It was later discovered that a 55-gallon drum had BLEVEd into the air and struck the gasoline storage tank, but did not breach it. It was decided to have Mount Morris City bring foam-capable Engine 11 to the site to supply Clio Aerial 12 rather than using handlines. The Genesee County Hazardous Materials Team returned to the scene to monitor the runoff and coordinate with the Young's Environmental response team.

Clio Aerial 12 and Mount Morris City Fire Chief Todd Rockwell and Engine 11 arrived at the scene at 8:09 A.M. A safety meeting was held with all parties on site at 9 o'clock. A schedule of update meetings was established to be at 9 A.M., noon and 6 P.M. each day for the next week. Young's Environmental brought equipment on scene to begin vacuuming operations in the low-lying areas to the northeast and east of the incident. Gary Brannock, Young's vice president of safety and emergency response, was in charge of the company's containment operation. Mount Morris City Engine 44-11 was supplied by a 100-foot, five-inch line and fed Aerial 12 with a 100-foot, five-inch line. Aerial 12 was set up in the south driveway on the D side of the 11134 building and operated for three hours.

At 11 A.M., command reviewed the smoke and air-quality readings and lifted all evacuations except for those within a half-mile of the scene. At 1:08, the order to lift the evacuation was given, although Saginaw Road between Tobias Road on the north and Wilson Road on the south would remain closed until Thursday evening. The fire was declared under control at 4 P.M. and Domerese declared the fire out at 4:30.


The CAFD had a current pre-plan of the buildings that was completed after the addition of the outside storage tanks in January 2008. Pre-plans of other large occupancies or locations with special fire loads have been reviewed and a box-alarm system has been developed for initial response. The Michigan State Police, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), EFI Global and Consumers Energy investigated the fire. The investigation is ongoing at this time. Damage was estimated at $1.2 million to buildings; $500,000 to contents and $1.5 million to the inventory. Two firefighters suffered minor injuries.

In the aftermath, Domerese cited several problems encountered during the incident. He said the first-alarm response of equipment and manpower was insufficient and that the department was not prepared for an incident of this size. Also, he noted that there were no fire suppression systems in either building. In addition, he cited a lack of sufficient foam supplies initially and the limited water supply available on a 12-inch dead-end water main. Changing wind direction required the evacuation radius to be changed several times.

As for successes, 1,500 gallons of foam was brought to the scene by mutual aid fire departments and private companies. The chief also was pleased with the responders' ability to establish a tanker-shuttle operation to provide adequate water for firefighting operations.

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.

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