Bedale is a small scenic market town in the heart of Britain's North Yorkshire, a region that author James Herriot described so well in "All Creatures Great and Small." The village is known for its charming bed and breakfast inns and shopping. It is also well known by U.K. firefighters as the location of a particularly difficult industrial fire at an LPG facility.
At 10:39 a.m. on Dec. 28, 1996, emergency officials received the first of 36 calls concerning a fire at a liquid petroleum gas fuel depot in Bedale, North Yorkshire. The first fire vehicle, staffed by retained (part-time) firefighters, arrived within five minutes. They found a serious fire involving a range of buildings, LPG tanks and a tanker truck carrying 9,000 liters (2,300 gallons) of fuel. An initial blast injured the site operator, the only personnel at the facility. He was unable to give any further details about the site or the fire.
The initial response was increased to three fire vehicles (pumpers) including an emergency tender which carries specialist rescue and breathing apparatus equipment. A cover officer from fire control staff was sent because of the number of calls being received. Early calls, however, mistakenly reported the fire to be a commercial gasoline station about a quarter mile from the LPG site. The first cover officer requested a further four fire appliances (pumpers) to the scene and, on the arrival of the brigade area manager, this was increased to twelve, all of which were in attendance within one hour of the first call.
Within that first hour it is estimated that some 200 LPG cylinders of 28.6 pounds and 103.6 pounds had exploded. A one ton (330 gallon) LPG tank had BLEVE'd (boiling liquid, expanding vapor explosion) and fire had spread throughout the site. At the top corner of the site the initial explosion had ruptured the supply lines from two 30 ton (10,000 gallon) LPG tanks to the main filling areas, leading to both tanks becoming involved in the fire.
Initial tactics concentrated upon setting in fixed water jets (monitors) around the site. A total of eight fixed water jets were set up and no attempts were made to enter the site for some 2-1/2 hours from the initial call, because of further explosions taking place.
A hydraulic platform (snorkel) was used to carry out an aerial reconnaissance of the site and was subsequently used to direct the repositioning of fixed water monitors to gain maximum cooling effect. Three fire hydrants were used and a nearby river provided adequate water supplies throughout the incident.
A risk plan detailing site location, water supplies, specialist equipment and so on, previously prepared by the brigade, was available. Its use was limited because of the transient nature of vehicles and cylinder storage which change on a regular basis. Advice on the installation was provided by a site manager who helped establish a more accurate risk plan locating all large cylinders and risks. There were no fixed fire fighting installations at the site in operation.
The site is located on the edge of the villages of Bedale and Aiskew. It had been there since 1936, but had converted from bg oil storage to LPG storage in 1986. The nearest residences were some 160 feet from the site boundaries. Bedale's town center or main street, which contains some 50 small shops and business premises, is approximately 1,300 feet from the site boundary.
An initial evacuation zone had been agreed to with the police and some 200 residents were moved to temporary rest centers within the first two hours of the incident. Also on hand were the Ambulance Service, which maintained a presence throughout the day; the Environment Agency, and local authorities.
At approximately 1:30 p.m. an engineer for Calor Gas, Ken Davies, made himself known to the incident commander. Although the burning facility belonged to a different company, Davies expertise is in large bulk storage installations of this type and, in particular, the design of fire fighting installations and tactics for such installations. As a point of interest, he was piloting a glider in the area and saw the incident from the air. Davies landed at a local gliding club and came to the site having some knowledge of its location.
He volunteered to attempt, with two fire officers, to enter the site to gain some understanding of the developing situation. This was a particularly risky operation as cylinders were still exploding because of the intensity of the fire. The officers and Davies also were able to advise on the repositioning of fixed water monitors to give maximum cooling effect during this operation.
At 2:30 p.m. a decision was made to attempt to valve down the two 10,000 ton LPG tanks. The tanks were located above ground, but had, before the fire, been protected by a sand and gravel covering inside an artificial bund constructed of hard-core rubble contained within a wire mesh. During the initial reconnaissance it became clear that a combination of the explosions and subsequent fire, plus cooling water, had led to both tanks being exposed to direct flame. Although the relief valves had not yet operated on either tank, the LPG pumps, valves and associated pipework that was located on top of each tank had been involved in a serious fire for some four hours. An assumption was made that if the integrity of the pipework and valves were lost, it was unlikely that any subsequent control of the flow of LPG from the tanks would be possible.
A 14-member team, made up of firefighters, officers and Davies, were given the task of valving down the two tanks. A request was passed to the police to extend the evacuation zone, the rationale being that because of the long exposure of the valve groupings and pipework there was no guarantee that the valving down operation would be successful. Furthermore, if it was successful, the increased pressure caused by operating the valves would place more strain on the already weakened pipework and flanges. Finally, if the fires were successfully extinguished, there was the possibility of a high pressure vapor or liquid leak which would lead to a further explosion. All persons not essential to the valving down operation were withdrawn to a safe area.
It took some 1-1/2 hours to assemble the team, carry out briefings, and get all fire fighting equipment and safety equipment in position. At approximately 4 p.m. the team entered the site having cut an access through a perimeter fence and within 20 minutes both valve groupings had been closed. After a further five very long minutes there were only minor fires left burning at some of the tank flanges. The risk of a major gas leak was still present and it was a further two hours before a message was sent stating the incident had been successfully dealt with.
The incident remained open until Wednesday, January 15, 1997, when the tanks had been emptied and purged. The first days attendance involved 17 fire engines, seven specialist fire appliances and more than 100 fire brigade personnel. The extended evacuation had involved some 800 people, although a full evacuation was never achieved because of the time scale of events. Police and emergency planning staff established a command center at the County Hall Emergency Planning Unit some six miles away. Fire command was maintained at the incident scene.
Considering the scale of the incident and its proximity to the residents of Bedale, it is remarkable to note that, other than the site operator who was injured in the initial explosion, there were no injuries or accidents and there was very little damage to property or to the environment beyond the site perimeter.
The fire fighting tactics, deployed to effect the valving down operation, were based upon techniques taught at the Fire Service College, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire. Four of the team of 14 had attended a course at the college where this technique was taught and this proved to be a significant factor in choosing to adopt it on the day.