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Shifting Winds Complicate Ponca City, OK., Refinery Fire

As a result of his efforts with regard to this fire Conoco Fire Chief Jack Higgins was awarded The Red Adair Award by Industrial Fire World at its 16th annual conference and exposition. The award goes to industrial fire chiefs and others who made an outstanding contribution in bringing a potential disaster under control.

"It was a beautiful fall day with the sun shining and no sign of trouble on the horizon." Corny as that may sound it accurately describes the moment preceeding an ignition that sent a 189-foot diameter storage tank up in flames in Ponca City, OK, on Oct. 28, 1999. Yes, the day was mild. The sun shone bright in a nearly cloudless sky. But what would soon become critical was the wind -- a stiff 20 m.p.h. south-southwesterly breeze gusting up to 35 m.p.h. and prone to sudden shifts in direction.

Ponca City is the home to one of Conoco Inc.'s largest U.S. refinery facilities. Encompassing two square miles, the 24-hour production facility is protected by a site emergency response team, a combination of full-time fire and safety personnel together with a highly trained brigade of fire, rescue and haz mat volunteers.

All these personnel were put to the test that October day. At about 11:27 a.m., two Conoco maintenance employees on a man lift were working near the roof of tank 118 when a spark ignited vapors. That ignition sent metal and people flying, tearing the insulated cone roof into several large pieces. Chunks of the insulation were found as far as five miles away. The two employees nearest the ignition survived although with serious injuries. Meanwhile, the tank's contents -- 2,238,600 gallons of gasoil -- was going up in flames.

Jack Higgins, a senior member of the site emergency response team, was among several ranking team members contacted immediately.

"When I left home I could see the smoke," Higgins said. "There was no doubt we had a major incident. My first thoughts were 'I hope no one was hurt,' but unfortunately we had two serious injuries. As I got close to the plant I could tell it wasn't a process unit. It had to be a tank."

Upon his arrival Higgins was asked to take command of the incident . His first step was to size-up the situation.

"It was a pretty awesome sight, a 198-foot diameter tank fully involved," Higgins said. "I took about two minutes to just look and see for sure what was in place and go over the preplan."

His first call was for the ERT's three National Foam Terminators? and additional pumpers from municipal mutual aid companies. Next, he sent out a request for the hose wagon.

"We didn't have near enough 5-inch hose (on the scene)," he said.

Conoco's ERT uses a well thought out, written preplan for incidents such as this. Practical exercises, including area mutual aid companies, are conducted twice a year. Also, the brigade and ERT members are sent across the country for specialized training. Preparing for what everyone expected to be a long afternoon, the ERT established its safety officer, air monitoring and a rehab area for the exhausted firefighters.

The time needed to actually extinguish a tank fire is relatively short. For firefighters the time-consuming factor is getting the resources to the scene, setting them up and then briefing everyone on the operational attack plan. Higgins said he knew it would be a waste of foam to start operations until absolutely everyone and every piece of apparatus was in place, ready to go.

At his disposal were seven engine companies, one aerial, four foam tankers, three ambulances, 26 totes of foam concentrate, a command van, four 2,000 g.p.m. portable monitors and 108 fire fighters. Setup required two hours, 40 minutes from the first alert to application of foam.

The fire was not neglected while these preparations are made. Higgins ordered portable monitors be placed on the rim of the tank for cooling maneuvers and exposure control to the neighboring tank. More than a mile of 5-inch and 3-inch hose was laid to maintain cooling operations.

One problem in preparing for the actual foam attack was that none of the responding mutual aid companies had foam capabilities. To compensate for this, Higgins had each of Conoco's apparatus lay a 5-inch line into one inlet of the monitors on a six percent foam factor while the second monitor intake was attached to a 5-inch line from a mutual aid water pumper. The result was a 2,000 g.p.m. three percent discharge of water foam solution.

All problems were not as easily surmounted. Soon hundreds of square feet of foam were standing two to three feet deep surrounding the tank. This was not the result of spill fire or ground fire control, but of the unpredictable shifts in wind direction. Throughout the foam application, portable monitors and their twin 5-inch lines had to be individually moved to adjust for the drastically changing situation.

The attack plan called for surrounding the tank from the leeward direction with the three monitors, then having them meet as close to center as possible to cover the top the burning tank in a "cover and smother" maneuver. One factor impeding this was that when the tank detonated its insulated roof was shredded. The remaining twisted debris became obstacles to spreading the foam blanket and establishing 100 percent extinquishment. Several small pockets of fire still burned on the surface of the 48-foot tall tank.

Unfortunately, the aerial device on scene was already committed to two other actions, one as a pumping apparatus and, second, as an observation platform for directing the master streams to compensate for the gusting winds. Adding to the difficulty was an earthen dike that was too narrow for the aerial device to negotiate.

The decision was made to utilize an industrial man-lift as a fire fighting platform with fire fighters using 3-inch hand lines. Foam operations began at 2:07 p.m. and the blaze was under control by 2:26 p.m. -- the first time. Three times the blaze was called under control but each time hidden fires would reappear. With one master stream left in operation, the man-lift was again brought in and put into action. At 3:25 p.m. the last monitor was shut down. By 4 p.m. the fire was officially "out" with no smoke or steam showing.

The Conoco responders and their mutual aid partners had handled the inferno in less than four hours and 40 minutes. Several key decisions led to the rapid extinquishment of this blaze. Calling for adequate resources through mutual aid was a preplanned strategy in the ERT's response protocols. However, the pairing of a foam pumper with a traditional municipal pumper proved highly successful and allowed for the simultaneous deployment of three National Foam Terminators?. One William's Fire and Hazard Control Hired Gun? brought by Sun Oil in Tulsa was held in reserve. (Also on hand were responders with Phillips Petroleum from Bartlesville.)

The use of a spotter atop the aerial helped counteracting of the wind's damaging effect on the operation. When the erratic wind patterns demanded that the Terminators? and their 5-inch supply lines be moved, a plant crane was engaged to speed the process. The use of two industrial man-lifts allowed safe operation of critically needed hand lines at the same height as the tank roof.

During the most intense phase of the operation, Higgins placed a call to National Foam's Red Alert Hotline and ordered 13,000 gallons of National Foam's Universal Plus and XL-3 concentrate. The foam arrived within 16 hours to replenishing the used concentrate, putting the Conoco ERT back into full response status.

Local government officials were complimentary regarding the professional and rapid response of Conoco's personnel in safety mitigating the fire and minimizing the environmental impact on the community.

John R. Coates is a 24-year veteran of fire and emergency services, both in municipal, industrial and airport operations. He is executive director of Fire Safety Technology, a Tennessee-based emergency services training and consulting firm. He holds seven instructor certifications ranging from International Fire Service Accreditation Congress and Aircraft Rescue Fire Fighting to advanced rescue. Readers can contact Coates at


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