Let it burn: When the risk is too great, firefighters must stand back
Safety risks and environmental impacts are two reasons to let a fire burn itself out
There is a time and a place when it is more important to let a fire burn than to try to extinguish it.
One such time is when the environmental impact will far outweigh the need to extinguish the fire.
This decision is far more difficult than whether a fire is an interior or exterior attack, but both decisions should consider the risk versus reward.
Such was the case at a recent major fire in Morgan Township in Butler County, Ohio. In the week following the fire, I had the opportunity to discuss this decision-making process with Morgan Township’s Fire Chief Jeff Galloway.
Preplanning the high-hazard tire mart
The Wholesale Tire Mart, a mainstay business in the area, operated out of 15,000-square-foot concrete block and metal-clad structure with a double fire wall located between the office and the tire area. The building was constructed in the 1970s, prior to the fire code requiring sprinkler and fire alarm systems or other suppression devices beyond fire extinguishers. Additionally, the business was located in an area of the township without fire hydrants. While there were over 1,000 tires in the warehouse – tires predominately used on heavy farming, industrial and construction equipment – the facility also had a unique retreading process that figured heavily in the decision to let the fire burn itself out.
For these reasons, Chief Galloway combined an annual walk-through by his department officers and firefighters with the business’s yearly fire inspection. During these visits, he had spoken with the owner about the possibility that a fire in an advanced stage may have to be allowed to burn because of the risk posed by the chemicals in the warehouse. The most recent walk-through had been approximately four months prior to the fire and included a review of the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) as well as a familiarization of the two unique operations in this high-hazard facility.
The first of these operations was the use of a process known as “Tire Fill,” a liquid rubber process that seals the inside of the tire and eliminates the need for an inner tube. Because the tires supplied to commercial farming, industry and construction needed to be impervious to tire punctures since they were used on heavy off-road equipment.
The second unique operation was the retreading process, which used a two-part bonding process called Rely T25 A & B that consisted of toluene diisocyanate and petroleum distillates. Once the tire had new tread bonded to its core, the tire spent nearly 12 hours in a circular press at 185-psi pressure to hold the bond in place until it thoroughly dried. At the time of the fire, there was an estimated 3,000 gallons of toluene diisocyanate and additional 55-gallon drums of both kerosene and isopropyl alcohol used for cleanup in this process.
Tire mart fire: Decision-making and operations
On Feb. 18, the owner closed his business at approximately 4:30 p.m. At 5:52 p.m., three separate motion detector burglar alarms were received by the Butler County Sheriff’s Department. (These were later believed to have been activated by smoke and some initial smaller explosions.) A few minutes after the alarm activations, several callers passing by the business reported smoke coming from the warehouse area.
Morgan Township’s first engine arrived at the scene at 6:03 p.m. and reported a working structure fire. Following his 360-degree size-up, Chief Galloway saw that the main body of fire was in the A/D corner and that one wall appeared to have lost its structural integrity.
Deciding on a defensive strategy, the chief called for additional fire units from Butler and Hamilton counties, including water tenders from throughout southwest Ohio. Eventually, this would also include water tenders from and as far away as southeast Indiana. Due to the thick black smoke, a voluntary evacuation notice was broadcast over local media outlets as well as the county’s cell phone notification system to nearby residents.
Forty-three minutes into these operations, an explosion occurred that blew out parts of the C/D corner walls and sent a shock wave that was felt nearly a mile away. A personal accountability report (PAR) was immediately ordered, with all sectors reporting a PAR and no firefighter injuries. Approximately 25 to 30 smaller explosions would occur throughout the course of the fire.
Shortly thereafter the initial explosion, the Butler County Hazardous Material unit and a team from the Greater Cincinnati Hazardous Material unit arrived. After surveying the immediate area, which included a small retention pond on the B side of the structure and a stream on the D side that flowed into the Great Miami River, plus a review of the MSDS materials in the building, a conference was held among these hazmat team leaders, the Butler County EMA and Chief Galloway.
It was recommended that there would be less environmental impact if the fire was allowed to continue to burn. No additional water would be applied due to the amounts and toxicity of the tires and chemicals stored within the premises. In this instance, the water run-off was considered more critical than the large plume of smoke that was blowing away from nearby businesses and residences. The smoke plume was projected by the EMA to extend south well beyond the Greater Cincinnati area and into Kentucky, but at an altitude that would help disperse the cloud and should not cause respiratory issues.
That night and into the early morning, the Morgan and Ross Township Public Works and the two hazmat teams worked to construct a 10-foot-high dam in the stream bed with over/under diversion pipes to allow the uncontaminated water to continue to flow while placing booms into the pooled basin to catch any contaminates. Booms were also placed in the smaller retention pond on the premises.
By the next morning, the fire had burned itself out except for several areas where the roof and walls had collapsed. Chief Galloway decided to request backhoes and front-end loaders to pull down these areas, and with the dams and booms in place, allow the limited use of water and foam to cool these hot spots.
At the peak of the incident, the response included units from 12 fire departments, the Butler County EMA, the Butler County and Greater Cincinnati hazmat units. The incident lasted for 38 hours.
The Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office responded to assist in the fire investigation, and it is believed the probable cause was due to a malfunction or an over-heated component in the retreading tire press. This also corresponded to the location of the fire noted by the first-arriving companies. At this time, the extent of dollar loss has not been fully determined.
Chief offers takeaways
What can we in the fire service learn from this fire? Chief Galloway believes these are some of his takeaways:
- Have annual fire inspections, preplans and, when possible, a walk-through by fire personnel for any commercial occupancy with a high probability of a large life hazard or an extreme fire load that could lead to a catastrophic incident including severe environmental impact.
- Consider risk versus reward. In this case, with the degree of structural involvement and the extensive explosions within the structure, a defensive strategy was adopted.
- Conduct regular training with the automatic- and mutual-aid fire departments that respond into your area.
- Identify compatible radio channels for operational use among the various departments and agencies.
- Use the Incident Command System, assigning sectors and units to incoming officers from other departments, including their use of a single universally adopted area-wide accountability system.
- Have a good working relationship with other assisting agencies, such as hazmat, public works, EMA, EPA and the state fire marshal.
- Take the advice of the experts – in this case, the hazmat teams, EMA, etc., on what may be a different but essential change in strategy (e.g., the decision to let the structure burn as the best way to deal with both the tires, toxic chemicals and their water runoff).
- Be available to the media, either through a designated public information officer (PIO) or, when possible, the chief of department, to provide accurate and timely information to the public.
Think big picture
This is not the first time that the decision to let a structure burn when there are no life hazards or nearby exposures, but it does serve as an example for us to consider that strategy when weighing the risk versus reward. Hopefully, it can serve as an example for all of us as one more option that is available when dealing with a high-hazard fire.
Editor’s Note: Do you have other recommendations for when to let a fire burn itself out? Share in the comments below.