Two FEMA Reviews Of Challenging Fires Available

Washington, D.C. – Two technical reviews of recent fires have been released by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. The reports cover the worst fire loss in San Jose, CA history and a fire at a Nebraska tire recycling plant – which took 11 days to extinguish.

The San Jose fire caused damages of more than $90 million. According to the report, San Jose fire officials identified county-wide radio/data interoperability, the need for additional radio frequencies and reviewing the mutual aid plan as priorities to be addressed based on lessons learned in the October 2002 fire.

“This was an extremely large fire that spread beyond the initial construction site to engulf nearby housing, putting many firefighters at risk and leaving many families homeless,” said Michael D. Brown, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response.

“While the San Jose Fire Department was able to manage the incident without any fatalities and only minor injuries, there is much to be learned from the fire.”

“It’s widely recognized that communication systems were quickly overloaded during this extraordinarily large event,” said U.S. Fire Administrator R. David Paulison. “The call volume pushed the fire department’s system to the brink, even with police department assistance, and the amount of radio traffic also exceeded the capabilities of the fire department’s system.

These issues have been recognized by senior fire officials and included in a formal post-incident evaluation done locally.”

The fire began at the 42-acre Santana Row construction site and was reported to the 911 operator by a caller located in a nearby high-rise building. Less than 10 minutes after the initial call, there was a second call reporting roof fires about half a mile from the initial fire site.

Eventually, 119 firefighters and 31 pieces of apparatus would respond to the construction site fire and 102 firefighters and 34 pieces of apparatus would respond to the secondary fire that burned through nearby residential units. A total of 11 alarms would eventually be dispatched to the fires.

A copy of the full report can be found at:

Review Of Tire Recycling Facility Fire Shows Small Towns Can Respond Effectively To Major Incidents

This fire took 11 days to extinguish and posed an environmental threat to the Missouri River. According to the report, the facility that was recycling tires was not designed for that use and adequate safe guards were not in place. The report urged fire departments facing such situations to be proactive in the permitting and zoning process whenever possible.

“This fire brought together local, state and federal officials and the private sector to overcome a large, dangerous and environmentally threatening situation,” said Michael D. Brown, Under Secretary of Homeland Security for Emergency Preparedness and Response. “The report illustrated how well mutual aid and cooperation worked in this incident, but underscored that stricter zoning and building codes are necessary to prohibit certain operations within city limits and in facilities not designed for that use.”

“This was a complex situation with wide-ranging impacts. Rail traffic was halted, residents evacuated and more than a dozen firefighters injured, all occurring in freezing temperatures,” said U.S. Fire Administrator R.
David Paulison. “Yet this technical review found that small towns can indeed muster the resources necessary to handle a major incident.”

The Nebraska City Fire Department was dispatched to the fire Jan. 23, 2002. The facility, which recycled old tires into reusable rubber, had four 64-feet high silos that could each hold 100,000 shredded tires; all four silos were burning. Firefighters eventually used nitrogen in an attempt to extinguish the fire. While the nitrogen was being used, one of the silos exploded, injuring firefighters. Firefighters from surrounding communities assisted in the incident while local law enforcement handled traffic around the area and state and federal agencies monitored air and water quality. In the end, a private contractor renowned for extinguishing oil well fires extinguished the blaze. At one point in the response, a microphone stuck in an open position disrupted communication between responders. All told, 390,000 gallons of contaminated water and 3.3 tons of tire crumb material had to be removed from the site.

A copy of the full report can be downloaded by going to

USFA develops reports on selected major fires and emergencies, usually involving multiple deaths or a large loss of property. The objective reviews are intended to uncover significant “lessons learned” or new knowledge about firefighting or to underscore ongoing issues in fire service. USFA, which has no regulatory authority, sends an experienced fire investigator to the community after a major incident only after conferring with local fire authorities.

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