Jumbo storage tanks in Cushing, Oklahoma, filled to the top with crude oil. - Screencapture Via Nightly Business Report

Jumbo storage tanks in Cushing, Oklahoma, filled to the top with crude oil.

Screencapture Via Nightly Business Report

Combine the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic with the Russia versus Saudi Arabia failure to agree on production cuts in crude and the result is a significant increase in the potential for fire in storage tanks around the world.

The world's storage tank capacity is full and close to being overwhelmed. Demand has fallen to a 25 year low of 70.4 million barrels a day. In Europe alone dozens of marine tankers holding nearly a million tons of different fuels lie at anchor with nowhere to discharge their cargoes (Source International Energy agency and Reuters news agency).

While the over production of crude oil has been well covered in the financial press what has been overlooked is the serious potential this has should a fire occur on, in or around one of the large oil storage tank farms.

Around the world, lightning strikes are the most common cause of these massive fires. Of course, any nearby heat sources such as maintenance work can ignite vapor escaping from tank seals or vents. Worse, if the tank’s contents is crude oil, the fearsome phenomenon known as “boilover” may become inevitable.

With decreasing numbers of staff at oil facilities, increased time between maintenance of tanks, drainage blocked, rim seals leaking, etc., unless sufficiently large supplies of water and foam concentrate are available with suitable firefighting equipment to apply them on site any fire involving a full storage tank will lead to a major incident.

During this critical period facility managers should ensure that:

  • Tank farm maintenance is fully up to date with tank drains clear and valves in the closed position to prevent unwanted discharge from over filling.
  • Rim seals are inspected to ensure they are providing a full seal around the tank circumference. Where this cannot be achieved due to wear and tear ensure these tank lids are clear of liquid. Make sure these tanks are identified for future maintenance as at risk of vapor escaping.
  • Tank bunds and containment areas should be cleared of vegetation and extraneous matter that could provide fuel in a fire.
  • Bund walls must be imperforate with any holes sealed up.
  • All pipelines leading through bund walls and into tanks should be checked for a proper seal with all valves on the line easily operable.
  • Fixed fire protection where fitted should be checked to ensure it is operational.
  • Any fixed foam pourers must be checked to ensure air inlets are clear with no birds’ nests present.
  • In earthquake zones the bolts securing discharge pipes to the side of tanks using U-clamps should be loosened to ensure the tank is not ripped open by the sudden upward movement as happened in California in early 2001.
  • Fire hydrants around the facility to be tested.
  • Fire pumps must be tested with their fuel supply topped off at the maximum. The pump house must be cleared of any combustible material, oily rags, etc. 
  • Foam stocks should be checked to make sure they are sufficient for the application rates necessary to extinguish the largest tank at the facility.
  • Mobile monitors and other support equipment kept in storage for some period should be taken out and checked for operational effectiveness.

Major emergency plans and training

Check that your plans are still relevant. Manpower levels at the facility and nearby fire departments may well have changed since the last time the plans were exercised. With the current restrictions on personnel due to COVID-19 the numbers of fire responders and appliances available may be drastically reduced.

Set aside time for all facility personnel to view videos reviewing the lessons learned from some of the larger tank fires, pressurised valve fires and sunken floating roof events.  Discuss how your facility and local fire departments would cope. Do you have enough foam stocks? Where will you get additional supplies and expertise to help? Have contact numbers available for contract fire protection companies that specialize in large volume flammable liquid firefighting.


Many of the legendary old-time tank firefighters have gone to the great fire hall in the sky, taking with them invaluable knowledge and practical experience in dealing with storage tank fires. With crude tanks full to the brim the potential for boilover and slopover incidents is extremely high, particularly if the fire officer in charge does not have an adequate understanding of the dangers involved.

With nowhere to drain product in an emergency, conditions are ripe for flammable liquid fires that could dwarf anything on record. It behoves tank farm owners and operators to take special care under these unprecedented circumstances.


Richard J. Coates FIFireE, FJOIFF and MBBA, is a career veteran with 50 years’ experience, including 22 years in municipal fire brigades, retiring as a chief fire officer. He followed that with 17 years as worldwide group fire advisor to BP.  A career veteran with 50 years experience including 22 years in municipal fire brigades retiring as a chief fire officer, followed by 17 years as worldwide group fire adviser to BP. He presided at multiple storage tank and terminal fires during his tenure. He completed his service at BP by initiating, designing and overseeing construction of what is still the world’s more advanced LNG fire training facility at Texas A&M University’s Brayton Fire Training Field in College Station, Texas.  He continues to work in the industrial firefighting field as an independent fire consultant.