Pesticide Storage Fire: Controlled by Lessons Learned
Photo by Keith Cullom
Late on the afternoon of September 27, 1986, dispatchers in Goleta, CA, a suburb of the City of Santa Barbara, received a telephone call reporting an unknown type fire.
Fourteen hours later, companies began taking up after completely extinguishing a fire that involved highly toxic materials stored within a commercial greenhouse complex.
The fire had broken out above an office at the Por La Mar Nursery shortly after business hours. Fortunately, the 30 or so employees had already left the building.
The facility, a 500 X 200-foot framed structure sheathed with sheet metal and fiberglass, is situated on the north edge of a fiveacre parcel of land. A paved 15foot driveway between the northside of this structure (Side 2) and a food warehouse complex was the only passable access to the free-burning fire in the rear of the building. Open fields border the greenhouse on the south and west, and beyond these and to the east are expansive housing developments. A coastal slough is situated within a quarter mile of the site.
At 5:10 P M, three engines (each manned by a captain, an engineer, and a firefighter), a paramedic rescue, and a battalion chief were dispatched to the scene. Units reported that heavy smoke was visible as they responded.
Captain Jim Hall, the first arriving officer, assumed command of the incident and radioed that they had a working fire and declared an extended attack, which means that the initial response units would probably need additional resources to mitigate the emergency.
The area involved in the fire was a 100 X 200-foot section in the east end of the structure that is separated from the rest of the building by an interior wall. Here is housed the nursery’s support area, heating boilers, dressing rooms, shipping and warehousing areas, the business office and computer room, and the storage area for pesticides and fungicides.
Captain Hall ordered a master stream to be set up in the driveway and operated through sliding doors and removed siding to knock down the flames. When the fire was darkened down, firefighters stretched 21/2-inch handlines and advanced into the interior of the greenhouse to attempt to contain the fire spread and extinguish the remaining flames in the facility’s product support area.
One-and-a-half-inch lines were directed to protect two semi-tractor trailer trucks on the northside driveway.
The nearest water source was a municipal hydrant 800 feet to the north and access was hampered by a concrete wall. Firefighters had to stretch lines over the top of this obstruction to reach their objective.
The role of incident commander passed to Battalion Chief David Bianchi upon his arrival. After being briefed on the situation, he requested a second alarm at 5:16 P.M., which brought three additional engines and Operations Chief Herb McElwee, who assumed command of the incident.
The second-alarm units took up a position in the field on the south side of the nursery and attacked the fire with l3/4-inch lines. Their water was supplied by booster tanks, which, when empty, had to refill at a hydrant 2,500 feet away.
A 5 to 10 mph westerly wind and the facility’s heat-activated ventilation system contributed to the rapid fire extension. However, aggressive and well-coordinated firefighting procedures contained the fire within 30 minutes.
At about the time of containment, plant employees gathering at the scene informed the incident commander that pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides were located in the involved portion of the structure.
Photo by keith Cullom
A wooden storage locker containing an Aldicarb (Temic), Banrot, Benlate, Dursban, Malathion, and Orthene—all of which are highly toxic—was in the area of involvement. (Temic is the chemical that, as a result of its misapplication, caused two deaths and destroyed the entire California watermelon crop in 1986.)
With the knowledge that continued application of water would mix with the chemicals and increase the toxic hazards to both firefighters and the community, strategies changed. All extinguishment and containment lines were ordered shutdown, all crews withdrawn from the immediate area-of concern, and the remaining fire in the toxic chemical storage area allowed to continue burning.
This strategy was based on the understanding that compounds of these particular materials are far less toxic when burned than they are when simply mixed with water.
Environmental health experts were called to the scene and Santa Barbara County’s two hazardous material teams were dispatched to the now major emergency.
The initial wind direction caused a housing development to the east to be of primary concern. Sheriff’s officers, State Highway Patrol, and volunteer members of the county’s search and rescue teams arrived, and forced evacuation efforts intensified in the exposure area. The Red Cross set up an evacuation center at a nearby junior high school gymnasium.
At 9 P.M. the wind shifted 180° and evacuation efforts now expanded to a trailer park 3/4 mile to the west of the toxic exposure. Two-thousand residents were removed from these dwellings.
Efforts to monitor and control the contamination from the pesticides and fungicides continued through the night and into the next day with residents not allowed to return to their homes until after 4 A M. Air samples were collected and tested by environmental health specialists. Dikes were constructed to contain the green tinted runoff and prevent it from entering the coastal drainage system and reaching the nearby Pacific Ocean.
While the hazardous material teams monitored the fireground, firefighters from the first and second alarm were decontaminated, first at the fire scene and then at a nearby hospital. Hospital personnel also took blood samples to test for toxins and to establish a cholestrate level. No firefighters or civilians were found to have been injured from exposure to the chemicals.
Firefighting equipment was decontaminated at the scene early the next morning. Self-contained breathing apparatus, ladders, and fire engines were all subjected to decontamination cleaning, and the runoff water was taken by vacuum trucks to a hazardous waste handling site. Items of porous material, such as turnout gear, undergarments and personal effects, hose, ropes, and other equipment were collected, eventually placed in plastic bags, and left at the scene. Only after it was determined safe, via chemical testing, to handle these items were they removed from the scene and properly disposed of.
Possible contaminated fire debris was hauled from the fire scene by a specialized handling firm and processed.
Fire investigators from both the Santa Barbara County Fire Department and the State Fire Marshals Office determined that the fire was caused by faulty heating equipment located above the business office. More than $500,000 damage occurred to the business as a result of the fire that burned 8,000 square feet of the building. Firefighting and control efforts therefore saved 92,000 square feet of the structure and its related monetary value.
The storage of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers within the building caused a “‘routine” fire incident to become a potential catastrophe, threatening the health of Goleta’s more than 70,000 residents and emergency responders. Had the pesticides and herbicides been stored outside, in an approved manner, the fire and safety problems would have been far less and simpler to mitigate.
Photo by Kefth Cullom