Moving a Haz-Mat Incident
Photos by author.
IN SEPTEMBER 1988 a swimming pool chemical warehouse in Glendale, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, burned in what was the state’s largest chemical fire. It involved more than a half-million pounds of items including dry chlorine products in varying forms, muriatic and sulfuric acids, and various water treatment compounds. The cleanup, which took weeks, eventually involved moving 72 long-belly dump trailers of fire residue to a hazardous waste disposal site in California.
One of the first trailers spent the night at a truck stop in the small Arizona border town of Ehrenberg, directly across the Colorado River from Blythe, California. Around 1:00 a.m., someone noticed an odor coming from the rear of the trailer and called the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS), the state’s hazardous-materials notification agency, and the fire department. After detecting a strong chlorine smell, we decided to move the truck-tractor and trailer out into the nearby desert and await the arrival of specialists from Phoenix, 180 miles away.
Shortly before sunrise, a two-milelong white cloud coming from the trailer was hugging the ground. A team immediately drove to the trailer, and while they were determining the seriousness of the internal heating, open flames broke through the tarp.
The chlorine content of the cloud was high due to the involvement of the granular dry oxidizers that had started this slow buildup oxidation reaction with the wood and paper product fire debris. There was now a rapidly growing chlorine gas cloud and the following factors to consider:
- The chlorine content of the cloud was extremely high and, based on observations of the color and density of
- the smoke, was remaining so for at least one to two miles downwind.
- A truck stop and restaurant were within a few hundred yards of the right, or southern, edge of the cloud travel.
- The town of Ehrenberg was on both sides of the projected cloud travel pattern but predominantly to the south.
- The town of Blythe was directly across the Colorado River on both sides of the projected cloud travel but also predominantly to the south. The Colorado River is approximately 200 yards wide at this point.
- The prevailing meteorological conditions were causing the white cloud to
- remain relatively narrow and dense and to hug the ground as it was moved by an estimated 1 to 3 mph wind toward the populated areas.
- The fire and chemical reaction would quickly accelerate smoke and chlorine production as more and more of the debris became involved, and the problem was quickly becoming worse.
- The trailer was located more than three miles from the closest fire hydrant, but three small fire departments were available to respond to the incident.
- There were six law enforcement personnel standing by, but three were required for immediate traffic control in the area. Several additional personnel could reach the scene within 10 minutes.
- A large percentage of the outlying residents of the area were retired, older persons presumed to have the expected higher-than-normal amount of respiratory problems.
- Due to the early morning hour (about 5:30 a.m.), almost all residents were still assumed to be asleep.
- Any evacuation would have involved coordinating the resources of the Arizona Highway Patrol, the La Paz County (AZ) Sheriff’s Office, the Ehrenberg Fire Department, the Quartzite Fire Department, the Blythe (California Division of Forestry) Fire Department, the Riverside County Sheriffs Office, the Blythe Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the I at Paz County Emergency Services Office.
- Based on past experience with weather in the area, it was known that the prevailing conditions would remain constant for about the next five hours, when a wind shift would occur. Area weather forecasts called for no change.
- The potentially exposed population was thinly spread over a number of square miles, but the possible number of evacuees ran into the thousands.
- Interstate 10 was on the southern edge of the projected cloud travel and would be directly in the middle as the cloud accelerated, requiring closure.
Considering all of the above, and a known lack of applicable guidance available in reference material, we decided not to attempt evacuations at this time hut to concentrate resources on quickly resolving the incident. With the minimum amount of personnel that was available, any evacuations only would have succeeded in exposing a less than healthy population to the chlorine hazard.
It was determined that fire department water tankers couldn’t arrive for at least 10 minutes, and the cloud was rapidly growing. We decided to move the burning trailer away from the exposed population so the smoke cloud would only drift over empty desert.
The members of the assessment team at the burning trailer included one experienced commercial vehicle safety specialist, who also was a part-time commercial truck driver. He volunteered to drive the burning vehicle. The other two team members led off on a dirt road into the desert to the north to check the route and to ensure that the road led away from populated areas. To help assess the downwind cloud travel and potentially affected areas, a DPS aircraft was called in to fly over the dozens of square miles involved.
Every available fire department water tanker in the surrounding area was called to respond to the remote site four miles away, and three different fire departments dispatched equipment, including a tanker and engine company from the California Division of Forestry’s Blythe Fire Department station across the river.
When it reached a remote spot in the desert where the team determined that the situation could be handled, the vehicle was positioned for subsequent mitigation efforts. The trailer was disconnected, and since it had no “landing gear” installed, the tractor had to be carefully driven out from under the trailer. This avoided the possible destruction of the tractor in the fire.
When the fire department tankers arrived, a quick test was conducted with an application of several hundred gallons of water to ensure that there were no unknown chemicals involved in the fire and reaction that could unexpectedly accelerate it dramatically. The experiment was satisfactory, so the fire department began to flood the trailer with water. The technique was successful, and the cloud rapidly diminished. Within about 15 minutes the reaction had almost completely stopped, and the cloud was almost eliminated.
During the time that the deluge quantities of water were filling the trailer a number of loud explosions occurred, along with debris erupting sometimes several feet into the air. Periodically, small amounts of green chlorine fumes also were emitted from the quickly diminishing reaction. Several fire department fog streams had been employed on both sides of the trailer to knock down the chlorine vapors being generated.
While initiating the operation, hazardous-materials personnel were sent to monitor the edges of the downwind cloud travel with Draeger chlorine tubes. Further, a hazardous-materials response person was sent up in the department aircraft to observe cloud travel and be prepared to assist.
The incident was quickly terminated, followed by several days of complete stabilization, unloading, and reloading of the debris from the trailer fire. A critique determined that the operation had been successful. The Arizona highway patrolman, Officer Art Levario, who had driven the burning vehicle, was subsequently awarded his department’s highest award for bravery—the Medal of Valor—for his courageous actions.
Officer Levario was honored for volunteering to drive the vehicle, which at the time had flames coming out of the center section of the trailer along with a thickening and darkening cloud of smoke and chlorine gas. The intensity of the fire was rapidly increasing. He drove the truck an additional four miles into the uninhabited desert over a narrow dirt road that crossed several desert washes, necessitating slow travel. All during this time, the fire worsened and the chlorine gas cloud got larger. Therefore, an incident that could have resulted in hundreds of casualties had been successfully handled.