Ryan Cellmer of the Plainville, Kansas, Volunteer Fire Department describes the sound of a burning 20-foot-tall fiberglass storage tank suddenly dumping nearly 400 barrels of crude oil as being "like a giant flush."
"I knew instantly what it was," he told Wichita television reporters. "The tank had let go."
Cellmer, who suffered second- and third-degree burns, was the most seriously injured of six firefighters hurt while battling a fire in an oil field storage tank battery. Lightning from a passing thunderstorm is suspected as the cause of the April 1, 2010, blaze.
Besides protecting a town with nearly 2,000 population, the Plainville VFD covers a rural fire district of 396 square miles. The firefighting mishap at the tank battery cost the department a brush truck, plus assorted equipment including breathing apparatus and hose.
Plainville Fire Chief Craig Wise said one critical factor got away from firefighters battling the blaze — time.
"The time we were on scene actually working was too long," Wise said. "Weshould have made the attempt, but not four hours' worth. After the second time we knocked it down and it came back, we should have said, 'That's it — we've done our best.'"
In Plainville, located 150 miles northwest of Wichita, oil production is secondonly to agriculture as the economic basis of the region. Tank batteries such as the one that burned in April are common, Wise said. The Kansas Geological Survey identified more than 1,500 wells operating in surrounding Rooks County in 2009, producing 1.9 million barrels annually.
Wise estimates that his department has responded to at least 30 crude oil storagetank fires in the last 10 years.
"Most of ours are started by lightning," Craig said. "We did have one about three months ago during cold weather where the heater treater caught the tank onfire."
To deal with the ongoing tank fire issue, Plainville firefighters routinely participate in specialized firefighting classes made available by the Kansas State Firefighters Association. Across the country, many fire departments receive monetary support from local oil producers in return for fire protection.
In Plainville, the VFD bears the sole financial responsibility for such training, Wise said. Shortly after 10 p.m. on April 1, a relatively mild thunderstorm moved through Rooks County. Wise, visiting his father at a local hospital, learned of the burning storage tank about 20 miles northeast of town by way of his pager. Nearly 20 of the department's 24 volunteer firefighters reported to the town's single three-bay fire station.
Plainville VFD's rolling stock consists of two pumpers, two brush trucks and a water tanker. Everything except one pumper was dispatched to the fire, Wise said.
"The fire was at a place we call Twin Mound," Wise said. "There were rolling hills that blocked our view until we got within a half mile of it."
Firefighters found fire blazing from the top of the two largest tanks in the seventank battery. The large fiberglass tanks, identified as gun barrel tanks, boasted a 400-barrel capacity each and stood almost 20 feet tall. These tanks are typically used to separate oil from water as it flows from producing wells.
Both of the gun barrel tanks were determined to be completely full. Each of the four stock tanks on scene held up to 200 barrels. Of those, two were almost full, Wise said. Finally, there was a saltwater storage tank capable of holding 200 barrels.
"The first thing we did was kill the power and do a 360-degree size-up," Wise said. "We pulled 1½-inch hose off two trucks, both ready to flow foam. Everybody airpacked up and we approached the burning tank."
Unfortunately, the lightning strike had not completely blown the roof off the tank. Instead, a jagged hole had opened in the top. Further complicating application were winds gusting to 30 miles per hour out of the south-southwest.
"We had hit it for probably 30 to 45 minutes the first time and appeared to snuff it out," Wise said. "We reduced foam application to a lesser rate to let everyone get their bearings."
To protect against corrosion, fiberglass is used as an alternative to metal incrude oil storage tanks. As the fiberglass heated around the roof opening, it curled. That protected pockets of flame from the foam, said Butch Post, the VFD's emergency management coordinator. Soon, the fire reignited.
Resources to continue the fire attack were limited. No water was available on scene. Also, Plainville firefighters had only 75 gallons of foam concentrate. Within the first hour, mutual aid arrived from nearby Stockton and Natoma bringing more equipment and foam. Responders added 2½-inch lines to the preliminary 1½-inchlines.
Firefighters managed to almost extinguish the tank fire a second time, only to have it reignite again. Then the wind shifted, coming from the northwest.
"We thought that by keeping it burning at a slower rate, we were defending the rest of the tank battery," Wise said. "But then we ran out of water. The other gunbarrel was off-gassing. Those gases ignited, and it got ugly."
About 4½ hours into the emergency, the flaming gun barrel tank ruptured. Firefighters were positioned on the east and southeast side of the tank battery when it happened.
"When the first tank ruptured, Cellmer was clear of the fire," Wise said. "He turned around and saw that one of our trucks was parked in the affected area but the fire had not reached it. He got to the truck but could not get it to move. Then the second gun barrel tank went."
A large amount of fuel spilling at once sloshed over the containment dike andspread fire around the truck. Cellmer escaped from the vehicle with burns to his hands and neck. The other firefighters taken to the hospital either had debris in their eyes or suffered exhaustion, Wise said.
According to Post, the biggest factor in the initial tank collapse may well have been a continuing stream of burning oil running down the side during the fire.
"When we ran out of water, we just couldn't put it out anymore," Post said. "Ithink that's what super-heated the side of the tank to where it collapsed."
Chief Wise said he suspects that the damage to the top of the tank may have weakened the overall structure.
"The top and bottom on a fiberglass tank is where the support is," Wise said."When that is gone, there is nothing to hold the cylinder together."
Once the first gun barrel tank failed, the radiant heat generated immediately compromised the second tank, he said.
For a small rural department such as Plainville, the incident at Twin Mound has been devastating. The community sprang into action, raising more than $5,000 with a weekend barbecue benefit for the VFD.
Unfortunately, that is less than 10 percent of the financial loss the departmentsuffered, Wise said.
Editor's note: This after-action review appeared in "Disasters Man-Made" by David White and Anton Riecher that was published in 2011.
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