Chemical Hazards, Exposure Concerns At Oklahoma City Oil Warehouse Fire

Feb. 1, 2006
Larry Hansen and Jay K. Bradish report on a five-alarm hazardous materials fire that destroyed a one-story building in Oklahoma City.

A spectacular five-alarm hazardous materials fire destroyed a one-story, concrete block and metal building in Oklahoma City on Jan. 15, 2005. The 150-by-150-foot building was occupied by the B&M Oil Company and used as a distribution center and warehouse. The building had ionization smoke detectors installed, but they were not connected to an external alarm system.

Firefighters were faced with many problems during this incident, but a strong incident command system and familiarity with the structure enabled them to achieve a successful outcome. The high volume of chemical hazards present, along with the amount of radiant heat being produced, greatly enhanced the potential fire spread to the adjacent commercial structure, residential structures and tank farm. The tremendous amount of heat being generated made it impractical to use foam until most of the chemicals had been consumed by the fire.

The Oklahoma City Fire Department dispatch center received several 911 calls from civilians reporting a working fire. Inventory in the building at the time of the fire included: 23 55-gallon drums of stoddard solvent; 20 55-gallon drums of mineral spirits; 17 55-gallon drums of kerosene; 18 55-gallon drums of methanol; 30,000 pounds of ethylene glycol (anti-freeze) in 55-gallon drums and 1,000-gallon tanks; 175 55-gallon drums inside and bulk 1,000- and 5,000-gallon tanks outside of motor oil; 20 55-gallon drums of molybdenum grease; and pallets of oil filters and absorbents.

The Oklahoma City Fire Department was dispatched to a reported fire in the facility, 615 SE 30th St., at 7:56 A.M. The initial response (equivalent to a second alarm) was Engine 7, Engine 23, Engine 19, Engine 16, Rescue Ladder 7, Rescue Ladder 16, Hazardous Materials Unit 5, Rescue 8, Brush Pumper 23, and Battalion Chiefs Steve Pennington and David Landsberger with 33 firefighters.

At 8:01, Pennington arrived on scene and reported flames and smoke visible. Pennington established command off of the 1-4 corner, out of the smoke plume, and ordered all units to employ a defensive attack to protect exposures. Four occupied residential structures were directly south of the involved building; OPECO Inc., an oilfield equipment warehouse, was six feet to the west; and numerous petroleum tanker trucks and large motor oil storage tanks were on the east side.

Rescue Ladder 16 and Engine 19 advanced three attack lines into the exposure building from side 2. The fire was extinguished and the crews maintained their position to prevent further damage to the building and contents. Hazmat 5 provided air monitoring throughout the incident and assisting fire commanders with establishing work zones and evacuation distances. The crew also reviewed the Tier II report for B&M Oil to determine the types of products and quantities stored in the building. Rescue 8, positioned in a parking lot west of the incident, was assigned as a rapid intervention team. Brush Pumper 23 was positioned on side 4, east of the incident, and its firefighter was assigned to Engine 23.

At 8:06, Pennington requested a third alarm. Engine 4, Engine 6, Rescue Ladder 6, Brush Pumper 4, Air Supply 1, Community Services Liaison Major Nathan Shipman and Battalion Chief Marc Woodard responded. By this time, water supplies had been established and four aerial master streams; two deluge monitors and numerous handlines were operating to protect the exposures.

At 8:18, Pennington made a special request for Engine 5 and Hazmat 55 to assist Hazmat 5. The crew from Engine 5 had looked up specific information on the building from the SARA Title II files. Pennington requested a fourth alarm at 8:19. Engine 1, Engine 51 and Rescue Ladder 1 responded. At 8:21, a special request was made for the department's foam supply trailer, carrying 200 gallons of AR-AFFF foam concentrate and 50 gallons of high-expansion foam concentrate.

Pennington assigned the crew from Engine 1 to evacuate the residential neighborhood south of the fire in a three-block area due to heavy smoke. Buses from Metro Transit Services were requested to the scene to shelter the evacuated residents. Once the evacuation was complete, Engine 1 was assigned to set up on the hydrant at SE 29th and Byers and pump to the Hydrassist to help supply water to Engine 6.

At 8:26, Deputy Chief of Operations Keith Bryant, Battalion Chief of Operations Larry Hansen and Special Operations Officer Richard Kelley arrived at the command post and conferred with Pennington. Hansen was assigned as the hazmat director and established an incident action plan (IAP) to address evacuation distances (if necessary), safe work zones for firefighters, fire control and identification of any environmental concerns.

The building was fully involved at this time with drums rupturing and exploding. The IAP determined that the initial evacuation area was large enough. The plan also called for continuing the exposure protection and letting the fire free burn to reduce the fire load to a point where foam application would be effective.

By letting the fire consume the chemicals and by limiting water application to exposures, the environmental impact was greatly reduced. The decision to delay the foam application was based on calculations that determined that the foam application would not be effective due to evaporation caused by the intense heat. Also, it was determined that the entire foam supply of the fire department and Tinker Air Force Base would not be sufficient to control the fire. At 8:48, a request was made to have an Oklahoma City Department of Public Works sand truck respond to attempt to contain any hazardous run-off.

Pennington request a fifth alarm at 9:44 to provide relief of on-scene firefighters. Engine 13, Engine 21, Rescue Ladder 25 and Community Service Liaison Corporal Paul Ankenman responded.

At 9:56, Hansen conferred with Pennington, who requested a foam tanker with a crew of four carrying 800 gallons of AFFF foam and 2,000 gallons of water from Tinker Air Force Base. By 11 o'clock, incident commanders determined that enough of the fuel had burned off and that foam operations would be successful. The Tinker foam trailer nurse-fed Rescue Ladder 7's aerial platform master stream. All 800 gallons of foam concentrate from the tanker were applied by Rescue Ladder 7 over a two-hour period. Additionally, firefighters from Hazmat 5, Engine 5 and Engine 23 used two handlines with in-line eductors in the interior of side 3 during mop-up operations.

Pennington declared the fire under control at 1:37 P.M. Absorbent booms were in place to contain the runoff and foam that was being applied by handlines to the remaining hot spots. Tinker Air Force Base units were released at 2:23. Pennington terminated command at 3:06. Oklahoma City units maintained a fire watch until 9 P.M., at which time the scene was turned over to an environmental cleanup firm. There were no civilian injuries, but five firefighters suffered minor injuries, most being from falls on the ice while operating in the 18-degree weather.

The Oklahoma City Storm Water Quality division and the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality remained on the scene for several days supervising the cleanup of the site by a private contractor. They also took soil and water samples for contamination monitoring. Oklahoma City Fire Department responded five times over the next 96 hours to extinguish hot spots.

The fire was investigated by Oklahoma City arson investigators and private insurance representatives. Investigators believe that the fire was accidental, but it is listed as undetermined. Damage to B&M Oil Company was estimated at $200,000 to the building and $3 million to the contents. Exposure damage to the OPECO building was estimated at $30,000 to the structure and $10,000 to the contents. The OPECO building and contents was valued at $1.7 million.

Special considerations were needed due to the cold weather in the evacuation of the residents and also for the firefighters operating at the scene. Firefighters needed to be monitored for chemical exposure and a Mass Transit bus was used for a rehab center. Due to the below-freezing temperatures, the foam was gelling quickly.

Decontamination of personnel and equipment was difficult due to the cold temperatures. It was determined that at future large-scale incidents, accountability should be kept at the sector level. Fire officers also noted the need to train heavy equipment operators and environmental cleanup personnel in the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for future incidents.

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