Working any kind of firefighting magic at an industrial conflagration requires one basic component – water. And, yet, as incontrovertible as that fact is, it is amazing how often responders have to scrape together major moisture on short notice at facilities where the need for water is as obvious as oranges are called oranges because they are orange.
No, I am not referring to the 1989 Pasadena, Texas, chemical plant explosion and fire. As much as I enjoy dwelling on that high point in my firefighting career the fire water system at Pasadena would have been up to the challenge had not the initial blast sheared off every available hydrant at ground level.
I mean companies who do not even bother installing the hydrants. In 2002 a fire at a petroleum blending and packaging plant in Pearland, Texas, threatened nearly 1.2 million gallons of motor oil, hydraulic fluids and lubricants. Yet, despite the clear and present danger, the plant had no water sufficient for firefighting.
The closest fire hydrant lay at the end of a dead-end main almost a mile away. Not that this stopped the owner’s representative from urging immediate intervention, Pearland Fire Chief Paul Jamison told IFW.
“He was yelling and screaming about why didn’t we go and put that fire out,” Jamison said. “We told him we would be glad to if he could tell us where his water supply was so we could hook up.”
Sixteen fire departments across a three county area responded, bringing 33 pieces of apparatus and 13 support vehicles. If they had brought the Army, Marines and 20 Boy Scouts with squirt guns the result would have been the same. With no water, containment and evacuation is all that could be done.
A report issued by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board states that better fire protection systems could have suppressed the fire. So where was the fire marshal in all of this? Unfortunately, the plant, located in unincorporated Brazoria County, was not governed by any mandatory local fire codes. Facility engineers use to take the lack of available water into consideration.
In July 2000, firefighters in Sealy, Texas, responded to what was initially reported as a fiery glow “somewhere behind the Whataburger.” Firefighters quickly tracked the report to a 120-foot-diameter openfloater storage tank containing 224,800 gallons of light sweet crude. The tank farm dated from the early part of the 1920s.
In an era when land was cheap and industrial firefighting much less effective, the best protection for a storage tank was distance. A good 300 feet stood between the burning tank and any neighboring exposures. Unfortunately, the big reason for that distance was a lack of water for firefighting.
Attention turned to tapping the nearest large-volume water source, a 12-inch main capable of 3,600 gallons per minute. Relaying that water the 2,000 foot distance to the fire required a 4,000 gpm pump near the main and a 2,000 gpm pump midway between the main and the fire.
Dwight Williams supervised the set up, taking care to scope out secondary sources of water such as canals or stock ponds.
“If the primary source gives out you don’t have to drive around in the middle of the night looking for more water,” he said.
The extra water was not needed. Using a Daspit tool, a portable 4-inch waterway monitor capable of a 250,000 foot reach at 2,000 gpm, the fire was extinguished within 10 minutes. Even if your plant sits next door to a fire water pond the size of Lake Michigan, do not get complacent.
How accurate is your estimate about the amount of water needed for a major fire? What if the first attack fails? Can you manage a second or third? If you need tankers, how many are available? Do you even know who to call? “The obscure we see eventually,” said Edward R. Murrow. “The completely obvious, it seems, takes longer.”