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The mammoth Orion refinery fire resulted from a tropical storm. Think about what a full fledged hurricane can do.
Volume 23, No.2

A big wind named Arthur is expected to visit sometime between June and November this year. If not Arthur, it might be Bertha, Cristobal, Dolly or Edouard. These are all names set aside for storms forming in the North Atlantic in 2008.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that 11 named storms will develop during the current year. Of those, at least six are expected to become hurricanes and at least two will graduate to major hurricanes of Category 3 strength or greater.

Dwight Williams of Williams Fire & Hazard Control can testify that even a storm that does not reach hurricane status can create major headaches for the petroleum refining industry. The conditions that caused the record setting Orion refinery fire in Norco, LA, in 2001 were brought about by nothing more than a tropical storm.

It took 13 hours to extinguish the 270-foot diameter storage tank containing about 300,000 barrels of gasoline. Had the contents been crude oil instead of gasoline, the results might not have been a success story.

“If the tank fire at the Orion Refinery had been crude oil, it is very possible and most likely probable it would have boiled over,” Williams said. “The key to avoiding a boilover is to address a relatively full storage tank fire within the first five hours after ignition.”

On the morning of Thursday, June 7, 2001, the 150,000 barrels-a-day Orion Refinery 25 miles west of New Orleans was only one of many along the Gulf Coast trying to protect exposed product. Tropical Storm Allison, suddenly swelling to life in the Gulf of Mexico, dumped almost 40 inches of rain on Texas and Louisiana during a three-day period. That resulted in many sunken roofs on floating roof storage tanks.

The Orion fire caught responders almost by surprise. The roof had partly sunk on Tank 325-4, a 270-foot diameter storage tank containing about 300,000 barrels of gasoline. The Orion Emergency Response Team was alerted to the situation. However, the ongoing tropical storm presented the first of many problems for firefighters during the emergency. Only one of the three roads leading to the affected tank remained above water, owing to a storm-related electrical problem with the pump that drained rain water into the recovery pond. High water hindered placement of heavy equipment.

Tank 325-4 shared a 10-foot-deep common dike with two other storage tanks, each separated within the dike by shorter intermittent dikes. With four feet of water filling the common dike, the intermittent dikes had already overflowed. As a precaution, the gasoline storage tank’s flooded dike would be foamed first to guard against igniting vapors in that area.

Responders were in the process of foaming the dike when lightning flashed nearby. Fire Chief J.R. Chidester ordered everyone off the dike wall save for himself and two others. Shortly thereafter, lightning struck the tank, igniting the contents in a full surface fire. Those flames spread to the partially foamed dike area as well. Beside the dike fire, Orion firefighters moved to cool the tank shell.

Intense radiant heat sweeping north from Tank 325-4 closed the single dry road left. Heavy equipment moving into position would have to risk the narrow, flooded roads. As a result, only the most essential of the abundant mutual aid equipment available could be brought to bear against the fire.

In Mauriceville, TX, there was two feet of water between the Williams F&HC offices and their warehouse. Despite this, Williams F&HC personnel had several rigs loaded with emergency equipment and were on the road in less than an hour.

Disregarding the accepted “surround and drown” philosophy of indiscriminately throwing as much water as possible at the burning tank, the Williams F&HC firefighters concentrated a massive foam attack on a single spot, gaining a foothold and expanding extinguishment from there. This is known as the “Footprint™” methodology, patented by Williams F&HC. The fire at Orion offered Williams the long-awaited opportunity to prove the Footprint™ methodology against a record-size jumbo storage tank.

Establishing a working rapport with the responders on hand is another important step in the Williams F&HC playbook. Chief Chidester remained in charge of the actual fire fighting, maintaining direct control over all the responding brigades and departments. Responders established a “war room,” a central location away from the fire scene where the overall situation could be closely monitored.

Working in a flooded tank farm posed a special set of problems. Because of the tight turns and muddy ground, equipment had to be staged one piece at a time. Using water curtains, firefighters opted to reopen the dry road north of the tank despite the radiant heat.

Cherry pickers were used to place nozzles and pumps in the muddy areas off the roads. Restricted access eliminated the chance of using fire trucks for drafting. Instead, firefighters relied on the plant’s own 18-inch firewater line utilizing five fire pumps. The refinery next door agreed to feed water from their firewater system into Orion’s.

Muddy conditions made the use of vehicle-mounted hose reels impossible. Every inch of hose was laid by hand, often underwater. Despite emergencies at refineries all along the Gulf Coast, nearly 60,000 gallons of AFFF/ATC foam was obtained from Louisiana stockpiles.

Responders were ready for their first foam attack. The plan called for a Williams F&HC Big Gun to shoot 8,000 gpm of foam into the tank from the 4 o’clock position while a Williams F&HC 1x6 nozzle shot 4,000 gpm of foam from the 8 o’clock position. Together, the two nozzles would hit the same spot with 12,000 gpm from different angles with an extra 1,000 gpm from a fire department Telesquirt.

At full capacity, the two Williams F&HC nozzles can deliver as much as 20,000 gpm. Dialing back to 12,000 gpm using two nozzles was a carefully considered decision by Williams. A single 12,000 gpm stream into the center of the tank would result in a 95-foot foam run. On gasoline, the preference is no more than 80 feet. With a combination of the equipment available, Williams F&HC compromised at 85 feet.

“That bought us 10 feet that we didn’t have to run on burning liquid surface and then heal up against hot steel,” Williams said.

With the roof in the bottom of the tank, responders had a clean target. Within 10 minutes, the foam application was gaining a “bite” on the fire. Flame collapse followed within 20 minutes of initial application. Then, working from the 6 o’clock position, the Telesquirt applied foam on the inner tank shell to keep the foam blanket rich.

Application rate was another important decision by Williams. At that time, the NFPA recommended application rate when foaming a burning tank was .16 gpm. Williams, who has always insisted the NFPA rate is too low, used an application rate of .21 gpm.

Consumed at a rate of 400 gallons per minute, two tanker trucks filled with foam concentrate were quickly exhausted. Then special teams armed with jet ratio controllers started moving from foam tote to foam tote to keep the operation supplied. Taking charge of the 1x6 nozzle, Williams carefully swept the last stubborn flames in a folded area of the tank shell. Sixty-five minutes into the attack, the last flames were extinguished. Thirteen hours after ignition, the Orion fire was dead.

Under perfect conditions the Orion extinguishment would have been staggering. With the degree of difficulty inflicted by Allison, the extinguishment at Orion became nothing short of miraculous.

By contrast, Hurricane Rita in 2005 at least gave Williams F&HC enough warning to get ready for the worst. The company has standing commitments to protect many Gulf Coast refineries. Unfortunately, the Williams F&HC headquarters near Beaumont was predicted to receive Rita’s full fury.

After evacuating their headquarters and moving their families to safety inland, a task force of Williams F&HC personnel positioned itself at a roadside park midway between San Antonio and Houston. There they waited.

Once the eye of the storm passed over the coast at Port Arthur, TX, the Williams F&HC firefighters deployed to the various refineries to which they had been assigned. Many of the Beaumont-Port Arthur area facilities had been subjected to extensive flooding and wind damage. In many cases foam blankets were needed to cover leaking fuel and prevent ignition.

Despite a wealth of fuel in storage at these facilities, the firefighters soon found themselves running critically short of gasoline needed for their operations. Food to feed the firefighters was also in short supply. Fortunately, the roads remained passable and emergency supplies soon reached them.

In Louisiana, the wind was violent enough in some cases to force storage tanks off their foundations. Although secondary containment caught most of the spillage from damaged tanks, the containment was sometimes compromised by the magnitude of the storm surge.

Many of the refineries in East Texas and Louisiana had been shut down and evacuated prior to the storm. Even under ideal conditions, restarting a refinery calls for caution. Assessment teams had to check for water damage to pumps, compressors, motors, heat exchangers, instrumentation and control systems.

As of mid-October 2005, 20 percent of the nation’s refinery capacity was down or restarting. Most of that shortfall was attributable to Hurricane Rita. Slowly, the refineries came back on line.

Prognostication is the power to predict the future. It would be a tremendous asset to any emergency responder. Unfortunately, if such a faculty exists in human beings, including firefighters, it is rare almost to the point of non-existence. Preparation, not prognostication, is what a fire chief relies on when the unpredictable threatens to consume his facility.

“The key to that is to have the water, equipment and chemical to handle it on site along with the trained personnel there to deploy it,” Williams said. “Make your calls early and get some experience there to stand next to you.”


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