Initial reports about a fire at ConocoPhillips’ 139,000 barrels-per-day oil refinery in Los Angeles worried LAFD division commander Ralph Terrazas. Could it be a storage tank ablaze? Or perhaps an alkylation unit? Maybe even a burning pipeline?
“We did a manned emergency table top exercise at the same refinery last year,” Terrazas said. “Our initial scenario was a leaking tank or something like that.”
However, the working refinery and its petroleum products were never in danger. The emergency turned out to be one that Terrazas and his firefighters were eminently qualified to address – a structure fire.
On January 16, fire swept through a circa 1946 two-story wood frame administration building measuring 300 feet by 75 feet on site at the refinery. The basement of the structure had sprinklers. The first and second floors were not, as built.
“This was standard stuff for us,” Terrazas said.
Thankfully, no injuries were reported despite a battle that lasted three hours and 48 minutes.
Industry is the primary economic activity in the southern Los Angeles district known as Wilmington. It lies adjacent to the Port of Los Angeles, one of the largest port complexes in the United States. Before the fire, the refinery’s administration building, with its brick façade and tile roof, served as a local landmark, Terrazas said.
ConocoPhillips’Los Angeles refinery is composed of two linked facilities about five miles apart. The front-end of the refinery, located in Carson, processes the crude oil, while the back-end in Wilmington upgrades the resulting products.
“I grew up about two miles from that facility and I still live nearby in San Pedro,” Terrazas said. “I’ve been on the job with LAFD for 28 years and most of my time has been in the central or southern part of the city.”
The fire in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 16 sprang to life from nowhere. “A security guard making his rounds of the administration building several hours earlier noticed nothing unusual,” Terrazas said. However, around 4 a.m., a passerby reported fire in a second story window.
One of three fire stations protecting the refinery is located nearby. The refinery’s Emergency Response Team (ERT) consists of 80 members, comprised of staff and hourly employees at ConocoPhillips. Equipment includes two 1,500 gpm pumpers, 24,000 gallons of foam, two 3,500 gpm Quick Attacks, two rescue trailers, among other apparatus.
Al Cantu, ERT chief, said members responded to the fire and made an initial assessment.
“The second floor contained heavy smoke and a large fire was reported on the north side of the building,” Cantu said.
At 4:23 a.m., LAFD dispatched Task Force 85 from Harbor City to the scene. Despite his early concern, Terrazas said additional information received by dispatch teletype soon indicated it was not a petroleum issue.
“With the dimension listed I was already thinking it was the administrative building because there was no other building at the refinery that long,” he said.
By the time the first LAFD unit arrived six minutes later, flames had swept through several second floor offices, Terrazas said. However, hindering the arrival of additional units, including Terrazas, was a traffic accident that had scattered mattresses across the Harbor Freeway.
“The California Highway Patrol was in the process of closing the freeway,” Terrazas said. “We got through by squeezing into the car pool lane, but later companies behind us were caught in the backed up traffic. It wasn’t a significant delay but it was still a delay.”
Once the LAFD arrived, they coordinated and carried out all firefighting tactics, said Cantu. The refinery ERT assured water flow, security, and the shutting off of utilities to the building.
“Unified Command was established from the onset of the incident from a field position,” Cantu said. “Shortly thereafter we (ConocoPhillips) activated our Emergency Operations Center (EOC) where the incident was managed for the duration of the event.”
Terrazas said he and Cantu remained side by side throughout the entire operation.
“He brought to my attention that there was a tunnel nearby that led to a lab building storing chemicals,” Terrazas said. “We didn’t want runoff water to go through the tunnel and intermix with those chemicals. I said ‘Give me one of your guys to escort one of my guys to check out the problem.’”
Water was getting into the tunnel, but it never rose to a level that endangered the chemicals, he said.
The EOC set up was the same as that used during a leaking tank exercise the year before, even using the same room, Terrazas said. “All we did was change the incident scenario.”
Initial entry revealed that the fire had spread throughout the attic space and involved numerous office spaces on the second floor. LAFD firefighters tried to stop the horizontal spread through the attic and provide relief to the companies below.
“Concurrent to that, our engine company, Company 38, was on the second floor attempting to put the fire out,” Terrazas said. “I talked to the captain. He said early on there was fire on both sides of the central hallway.”
Despite the low visibility it was obvious that an air conditioning unit had already fallen into the main hallway from the attic, he said.
“If you think about how long it would take for an AC unit to drop through all that heavy timber, it had to have been burning for a while,” Terrazas said.
In a perfect world, firefighters would have proceeded down that central hallway using a 2½-inch line down the middle and a 1¾-inch line on either side, pulling down ceilings along the way, Terrazas said.
Unfortunately, only two task forces, each consisting of an engine company, pump company and truck company, were initially assigned.
“Under normal circumstances that would have been fine, but I would have doubled it and added some chiefs and some tactical channels,” Terrazas said. “You would have gotten more resources there quicker and then when the initial companies were asking for relief we would have had companies there.”
Also lacking, Terrazas said, was a coordinated strategy in terms of how to push the fire out of the hallway working in conjunction with the firefighters on the roof. Aside from the partial collapse, firefighters had difficulty ventilating due to the tile roof, he said.
“The tile was attached to metal strips and had bailing wire through two attachment points on each tile,” Terrazas said. “The truck company had to break the tile then sweep it before cutting a trench.”
Firefighters did cut a ventilation hole above the office area but backed off upon discovering the roof collapse, he said. Instead, responders cut a trench to protect the eastern exposure.
“There was also a large radio antenna on top of the building that was an immediate concern of mine,” Tarrazas said. “It eventually tilted over but never came down.”
Low water pressure further hindered fire fighting in the early stages. It was reported that a fire water main ruptured. ConocoPhillips ERT members isolated the leak and water pressure was restored.
Tarrazas gave the next task force to arrive the job of “laying in” to bring more water to the scene and spread it among the companies working the exterior.
Terrazas also said he would like to have had more accurate radio communications regarding the deteriorating conditions.
“We just didn’t have the companies, the water or the coordination,” Terrazas said.
All these problems, together with firefighters running low on breathing air, forced Terrazas to make a major shift in tactics about 30 minutes into operations.
“I made a decision to go defensive and pull everybody out until we could knock it down with our heavy streams,” he said. “We hit it, knocked down the bulk of the fire, let that run for a while and then went in with handlines.”
At about 6 a.m., soon after knocking down the bulk of the fire, Terrazas, Cantu and other EOC members conducted a unified command meeting to create a list of objectives, Terrazas said. Another meeting was scheduled for several hours later to cross the accomplished objectives off the list and add new ones.
The break from the fire scene gave Terrazas and a ConocoPhillips representative an opportunity to conduct a press briefing. By that point, the fire was nearly 95 percent extinguished.
“I stressed to the community that this was not a hazardous materials incident, but a fairly common structure fire,” he said.
ConocoPhillips also assigned a team to canvas residential neighborhoods in the immediate area to answer questions.
“They had a Spanish speaking translator with them, because a large percentage of the community is Spanish speaking,” Terrazas said. “That’s the community I grew up in, so I knew there would be some concern about the smoke.”
Much of the media interest was economic, he said.
“We got questions from the media about whether this was going to disrupt plant operations,” Terrazas said. “They were really afraid of the cost of gas going up. The ConocoPhillips rep said absolutely not.”
Because Jan. 16 was Martin Luther King Day, administrative employees who normally would have been arriving for work that morning had the day off. By 10 a.m., ConocoPhillips had their response contractor on scene to deal with computer issues resulting from the fire.
“I was pretty impressed with the fact that one of their Unified Command objectives was to get back on line as soon as possible,” Terrazas said. “By that point I was dealing with cause determination, feeding all of my guys and getting them released and making sure nobody got hurt during the overhaul phase.”
Two days after the fire, the principal figures in the emergency response met to critique their actions and further speculate about the fire itself.
“My original thought was that it was electrical, working its way up the wall from one of the offices into the attic,” Terrazas said. “But my thinking now is that it was smoldering in the attic for some time, and that caused the AC unit to drop down.”
Both ConocoPhillips and LAFD had safety as their primary objective. During the overhaul phase, Terrazas required his firefighters to use SCBA to avoid breathing smoke. ConocoPhillips assisted in shuttling air bottles to be refilled, and assured that all responders were hydrated, feed, and rehabilitated during their breaks.
With regard to cooperation from ConocoPhillips, Terrazas said he believes that the company would have provided firefighters with all the resourses needed or requested.
“They gave us access, information about the building and exposures and even provided some valuable resources,” he said. “When we needed to de-water the basement, they had vacuum trucks that we could use.”