Hydrocarbon Processing Copying and distributing are prohibited without permission of the publisher
Email a friend
  • Please enter a maximum of 5 recipients. Use ; to separate more than one email address.

Keep it simple: Three key elements to fighting flammable liquid fires

11.01.2012  |  LaVergne, E.,  Tyco Fire Protection Products, Mauriceville, Texas

Simple, hardy equipment, high-quality foam concentrate, and having a good understanding of the hazardous situation will remain the three keys to success, says the author.

Keywords: [fire] [foam] [storage tank] [pipeline] [railcar] [hydrocyanic acid] [HCN] [fire hose] [fire prevention]

Many storage tank facilities in the US have the necessary resources to douse a large-scale flammable-liquids fire, but ultimate success centers on the strategy taken with personnel, equipment and expertise. Approaching each fire strategically requires taking into consideration three key elements for flammable-liquid fire extinguishment:

  1. High-quality foam concentrate that outperforms industry standards and surpasses baseline testing
  2. Simplistic equipment that can stand up to harsh conditions, and rigorous and extensive use
  3. Understanding and identifying the hazard, and deploying the right firefighting methods to extinguish the flame quickly, with minimal loss of resources and danger to personnel.

If there is adequate water, hoses, pumping capacity, foam concentrate, delivery devices and personnel, a fire can be successfully extinguished. However, gathering those resources and implementing the appropriate procedures can be challenging. The concepts may seem simple, but execution can often be difficult. The experience of flammable-liquid firefighting personnel is one of the most invaluable elements in combating these types of fires.

The experience of battling an extremely challenging fire at a major refinery in Louisiana in 1989 continues to offer insight into strategies for dealing with especially confounding blazes.

This refinery incident was a massive multi-target fire involving tanks, pipelines, railcars and API separator units. The magnitude of this event required immeasurable skill in the vital areas of incident command, tactical excellence, logistics and resource management. Collaborating with the site fire chief, the fire was suppressed in a relatively short period of time and an incident that could have turned into a regional crisis was averted.

The response team assisted the client in suppressing fires in 16 storage tanks (two of which were 134 ft in diameter with manifold fires and dikes completely involved in the blaze), four API separators (which separate large amounts of oil and suspended solids from the wastewater effluents) and two
pipebands involving about 250,000 square feet of fire area. The company responded with hardware and personnel, successfully extinguishing all fires in 14 hours and 29 minutes with 48,000 gallons of alcohol-type concentrate foam. The facility-consuming event was a massive test of strategic response capabilities, incident command prowess, emergency preparedness and logistics.

Power loss leads to fire

The cause of this significant event started because of a power loss to a grid serving a large radius of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, including a major refinery and chemical complex. Due to abnormal freezing temperatures, this power outage caused the facility’s systems to go into fail-safe mode. In the fail-safe mode, system design parameters cause various components of the process and transfer system to default to wide-open or fully closed positions to manage process variables such as flow, levels, pressures and temperatures throughout the facility.

Thermal expansion on an 8-in., high-pressure product line caused a failure releasing 1,500 pounds per second in a hydrocarbon vapor/mist form. The release lasted approximately 21⁄2 minutes before ignition. An estimated 225,000 pounds of released hydrocarbon vapor created a cloud 1,000 ft–1,500 ft in circumference and about 80 ft in height/depth. The blast measured a 3.2 on the Richter scale 75 miles away in New Orleans.

On site at the time of the explosion, the fire chief for the facility was supervising safety components of other maintenance activities in a low-lying area between two high dike walls of a storage tank. Nestled between these surrounding dike walls, the fire chief and his team were shielded from the impact wave caused by the initial explosion. Following the initial explosion, the fire chief made his way through the facility to ascertain operating status and damage assessments. Impeded by excessive debris from the blast wave, he made initial observations from the ground as he made his way on foot within the facility.

Less than ideal circumstances

Ideal conditions for fighting a fire simply don’t present themselves when a major industrial emergency of this level occurs. One of the greatest challenges initially was the logistics of getting personnel and material onsite in a way to provide a tactical advantage over the multitude of fire-related events occurring throughout the complex. Though initially isolated from response personnel, the onsite fire chief relayed his observations that strategic upwind staging areas and supply routes had been cut off by the impact of the explosion and the ensuing fires. Optimum points of attack were initially taken away by the explosion, including a vital vehicle access tunnel that had flooded with 10 feet of burning flammable liquid from a nearby tank rupture. This required identifying alternate means to move in supplies and personnel.

Four beachheads were soon established at points on the property that facilitated injection of personnel and materiel to sustain what would become a nearly 15-hour battle. Four teams were organized at these beachheads to initiate an attack, with each team working its way through the facility to confront whatever fire scenario lay in front of them.

Simultaneously as these resources were being organized, the first order of business in the response effort was addressing the numerous railcars that were stationed on the property. With five rail spurs (Fig. 1) feeding the facility, railcars containing various products from facilities throughout the industrial corridor were on the property at all times. Under these circumstances, the greatest immediate concern for incident command was three railcars specially marked as containing hydrocyanic acid (HCN) that were waiting transfer to another facility at the time of the incident.

  Fig. 1. Rail spurs are common arteries into
  industrial sites, and they carry any number of
  railcars bearing chemicals that may become a
  priority following a fire event.

The threat HCN poses prompted the railroad commission to determine that railcars carrying this product (unlike any other railcar) would be conspicuously painted white with a red stripe down the side for easy identification. Railcars were methodically removed within 45 minutes of the initial explosion. Including the 151 cars that were onsite, chemicals including gasoline, vinyl chloride, liquefied petroleum gas and other explosive and flammable liquids were present. Addressing the close proximity of these railcars to the vast ground spill fires, and the pressure fires in a pipeband across from the railroad staging area, prevented the possibility of chemical fires, more spill fires, and potential railcar boiling liquid expanding vapor explosions (BLEVEs). All the while, with the loss of power, gas supply and steam production, many facility personnel continued working throughout the site to secure process operations and all related aspects of facility safety.

This added the dimension of carrying on perpetual personnel accountability efforts while managing a very large response effort. Success in this incident was possible largely because of the willingness and exemplary training acquired by the response personnel for each of the specific threats they faced on this day.

Help arrives

Additional reinforcements were summoned in the form of a contracted fire-control company. Its role was to provide added personnel, foam and equipment to aid primarily in extinguishing the larger tank fires on the site.

Using information from Louisiana State Police helicopter observations and quad sheet/map details, firefighting teams on the ground were kept informed of the activities of the teams working around them (Fig. 2), and they helped prioritize the numerous fire scenarios confronted throughout the day — thereby orchestrating the overall response efforts.

  Fig. 2. Firefighters work with both facility
  response teams and local response personnel
  to identify effective response strategies.

Conditions that day added to the complexity of the situation. Firefighters dealt with challenging terrain characteristics, impeded supply lines, ambient temperatures reaching down to 10°F and the freezing of any firewater supply that was not kept moving.

It was an extreme and unusually cold December day in south Louisiana. The average temperature at that time of year normally is about 70°, but there had been subfreezing temperatures for five days prior to the fire. Even as they gained control over the situation, firefighters continually had to overcome the extreme cold given that their heat source had disappeared.

The tactics on this day were largely governed by the characteristics of the damage resulting from the initial explosion. The main challenge that haunted firefighters throughout the day was water supply. The water main was severely damaged in the explosion—hydrants were blown from their foundations, and extreme heat melted the brass steamers in the barrel of many hydrants.

Under normal circumstances, firewater supply would have been extracted from facility hydrants, but extreme temperature conditions and the explosion impact eliminated those resources. This forced the tank-fire specialists to develop their own water supplies and pumping systems. This became a fairly large task, especially considering that the fire was suppressed in less than 15 hours.

Alternate water resources available included chemically treated river-water tanks, process cooling tower water, and storm drain reservoir water that was drafted from below the oil layer and pumped to pumper trucks. In the extreme cold weather, responders resorted to burning boxes set atop frozen 12-in. valves to gain access to water within the river-water tanks. Water from the cooling tower was relayed from 3,500 ft away.

Teams were pulled away from their primary response efforts twice to address fires that sprang up resulting from a rupture in a failed tube in a furnace, occurring when the power crashed, and another major pump fire in the chemicals division. Throughout the entire operation, not one lost-time injury was incurred.

Some of the firefighting personnel had responded to an incident at another refinery that same day (also a result of the subfreezing temperatures). Since the plants were located in a warmer climate, water distribution systems were plumbed aboveground. Result: The cold weather led to frozen and damaged pipes. After addressing the prior incident, the crews received a call about the refinery fire in Baton Rouge.

As crews arrived, fire personnel could actually see the fire from about 50 miles away, leaving no doubt that they would be dealing with a massive incident. There was a lot of difficulty getting to the facility because the explosion did so much damage to the region.

Simple is better

Fires of this type often are best battled with a simplistic approach, using a philosophy triangle that involves high-quality foam concentrates, proven equipment and a vast understanding of the hazard.

Understanding conditions is essential in battling a flammable-liquids blaze. This instance called for simplistic equipment because the fire was fought under adverse conditions.

The fire field is no place for digitally-controlled equipment, given the often extremely harsh conditions. It can be hot, cold, muddy or wet. Very robust equipment and products are needed for success. Often, it’s about understanding and simplifying the process, but everything must come together to provide a total solution.

Major obstacles overcome

One of the biggest challenges was the lack of water, since the water distribution system had been cut off. Crews had to turn to a cooling tower and the Mississippi River as sources for water. They also had to deal with a considerable amount of ground fire.

Despite the challenges, firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze at a much lower than normal water/foam application rate. Normally, suppressing a fire in a 134-ft diameter storage tank would have an application rate of 0.16 gallons per minute per ft2. Highly effective tactical discipline and team communications enabled the crew to defeat much of the fire at an application rate closer to 0.10 for this tank, supporting the claim for high-quality foam concentrates.

Another issue encountered involved the fire hose couplings that refinery operators used at its facility. The hoses had a thread specific to the company, a thread that was uncommon to outside fire-response departments. When the hoses had to be married with the hoses from the aiding firefighting entities, the necessary adapters were not available to make the crossovers. This forced firefighting personnel to use duct tape and bailing wire to hold couplings together on some hoses. A key lesson learned is when outside resources are being brought in, it needs to be confirmed that crossover adapters will be compatible. Each individual facility, when it calls for assistance, should ensure that mutual aid providers can tap into their system. After firefighters successfully suppressed the refinery fire, the refinery operator made changes to standardize its hose threads to meet the industry standard.

Training is key

The team that responded to the fire had worked together for many years, making it second nature when it came to fighting this large-scale refinery fire. In addition, the group had trained with the team permanently situated at the refinery, making their joint firefighting philosophies very similar. This alliance is credited as a key component to quickly controlling and defeating this incident.

When firefighters receive training, they must be taught to think beyond the classroom; there is no textbook during a fire. They should be pushed to gather all knowledge and understanding, thus keeping an open mind when fighting a fire.

When confronted with a dynamic emergency situation, the way firefighters handle the task is directly related to their success and safety. Reactions to stressful situations are typically unchecked and fueled by emotion. Experience and advanced preparation guide responses based on intelligence and confidence. A planned response allows crews to act from a position of strength rather than from anxiety. Professional response operations will deliver coordinated targeted actions that will produce specific predictable results built on knowledge of fire dynamics.

A primary reason the fire was suppressed in less than 15 hours stemmed from the relationship between the company and its long-time customer, leading to well-developed plans for such a fire.

This kind of evolved fire, which required addressing multiple fires at once, with reduced resources, freezing temperatures, burning infrastructure and lack of water, became a test of that relationship. In the end, the success in battling the blaze mitigated the impact on the surrounding community and eliminated a threat to the nearby Mississippi River.

The potential of a fire on the magnitude of the 1989 Louisiana refinery blaze may be somewhat rare, but it’s a major concern for operators of large refining/chemical complexes. Therefore, they must be prepared for a major fire, even if the potential is limited. The continuous development of firefighting teams is essential in remaining prepared for a blaze of this magnitude.

Post-incident analysis

Firefighting companies should develop a post-incident analysis to determine strengths, weaknesses and lessons learned about incident-response operations and tactical equipment/performance. The analysis requires close evaluation of all conditions, factors, decisions and efforts made during a major incident. This detailed retrospective can empower incident command and better prepare response personnel in future events.

Fire personnel who keep the three key elements of effective firefighting for flammable liquids close at hand will be successful. Simple, hardy equipment, high-quality foam concentrate, and a good understanding of the hazardous situation will remain the three keys to success in reducing, preventing and quickly extinguishing fires. HP

The author

Eric LaVergne is an industry veteran with more than 25 years of commercial sales, industrial and on-the-job firefighting experience in the fire and hazard control category. He has a degree in occupational health and safety.

Have your say
  • All comments are subject to editorial review.
    All fields are compulsory.


safety is base on prevention, so we should always take the right preventive procedures to avoid accident and incident in our working environments, thanks.

abd al salam

salam alekum .
i have new idea to firefight hydrocarbon liquids in the rfineries depots and i need to send my idea for yours .
you agree?


Eric, Congratulations on the article; 14 hours of combat is a good record, great volume for large fires, Just one question. The foam Tyco, contains Dipropylene Glycol Dimethyl Ether or Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or Perfluorooctane Sulfonate?

Related articles


Sign-up for the Free Daily HP Enewsletter!

Boxscore Database

A searchable database of project activity in the global hydrocarbon processing industry


Is 2016 the peak for US gasoline demand?




View previous results

Popular Searches

Please read our Term and Conditions and Privacy Policy before using the site. All material subject to strictly enforced copyright laws.
© 2016 Hydrocarbon Processing. © 2016 Gulf Publishing Company.