Across California is a chain of dry Pleistocene lakes which were formed during the Ice Ages. Today, the lake bed near Trona, CA, contains a plethora of sodium and potassium minerals of the carbonate, sulfate, borate and halide classes, dur to long sedimentation and evaporation processes, which occurred over a period of about 150,000 years.
Ed Townsend, chief of emergency services at the Searles Valley Minerals Operations in Trona, said it feels like it took almost that long to get an okay for his new Ferrara Intruder II pumper, collected fresh off the assembly line in early August.
"I was using a 1986 Boardman pumper that held 750 gallons of water and pumped 1,250 gallons per minute," Townsend said. "It seated about two large people, and that was all."
By comparison, Townsend's new Ferrara seats five firefighters. Built from heavy duty extruded aluminum, it boasts a 400 horsepower Cummins ISL-400 engine, an Allison 3000 EVS automatic transmission and a single stage Waterous CSU pump capable of 1,500 gallons per minute. The pumper comes with a 1,000 gallon water tank and a 20 gallon foam tank.
"There aren't a whole lot of extras, but it's sure a lot nicer than what we've got," Townsend said.
Searles Valley Minerals manages extensive operations in California's Searles Valley. Power and production facilities cover more than 339 acres at the Argus, Trona and Westend plants. Of these three, the Trona facility is the oldest, dating back to 1916. It uses a solvent extraction method to recover boric acid from weak Searles Lake brines.
"We pump the brine out of the dry lake bed to get the salt crystals we need," Townsend said. "From that, we? recover sodium sulfate and boron products."
In addition to boric acid, the Trona facility produces anhydrous borax containing low sulfate values and borax decahydrate.
"We have our own coal fired boilers, so we are self sufficient for energy," Townsend said. "We employ about 650 employees, and 100 contractors."
Protecting the Trona plant is a fire rescue and hazmat team consisting of 34 volunteers. Townsend, an 18-year veteran of the plant fire brigade, has served as chief for the last eight. He said it was obvious that the time had come to replace his former pumper.
"We've thrown money at it and more money at it," Townsend said. "Finally, it came down to repairing the pump again. I said, 'Wait a minute - let's stop throwing money at this and get something we can really use.'"
The local challenge is not limited to industrial fires. The Trona brigade has a mutual aid agreement with the San Bernardino County Fire Department. At 20,160 square miles, San Bernardino County is the largest county in the continental United States. The fire department's jurisdiction encompasses 18,353 square miles of extremely diverse environments that stretch from the Los Angeles County line on the west, to the Colorado River on the east, to the Nevada State line and Kern and Inyo counties on the north.
Trona is only one of 53 communities that the San Bernardino County Fire Department serves. That results in the brigade responding to as many as eight structural fires a month. Trona, population 1,885, has been losing residents for many years, resulting in a large number of unoccupied houses.
Searles Valley Minerals also has a mutual aid agreement with a nearby coal-fired power plant that serves as a public utility.
Beside the new pumper, the Trona brigade operates two brush units referred to as "squad and rescue" units, each carrying 300 gallons of water. One of the trucks is kept in Trona near Townsend's office and another is kept at a Searles Valley Mineral facility six miles away.
Townsend's brigade trains weekly. In addition, Townsend brought in Baton Rouge, LA - based Roco Rescue, specialists in confined space and rope rescue training, to conduct two 100-hour classes for the volunteers.
"We have everyone on the brigade certified," Townsend said. "We get together for rescue training twice a month for six hours and for fire training twice a month for four hours per session. We also do 50 hours a year of hazmat training."
All of the Trona firefighters are certified as Firefighter I in the state of California. Townsend himself has attended training in industrial fire fighting at Emergency Services Training Institute in College Station, TX.
As for large scale training exercises, the Trona volunteer gets together with the county firefighters when possible, Townsend said. Often joining them are firefighters from the Navy's single largest facility, the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, located about 20 miles away. The center is dedicated to airborne weapons testing and training.
Trona's new fire truck came close to its first emergency even before it left the Ferrara plant in Holden, LA. Tropical Storm Edouard, threatening the Gulf Coast, concerned Searles Valley Minerals when Townsend visited Holden to pick up the finished truck.
"They said bring it straight back here as safe as you can," Townsend said.