HOUSTON – Bang! Crack! Whoosh!
A bolt of lightning, then suddenly, a storage tank for chemicals or petroleum is lighting up the sky with flames and plumes of thick black smoke.
This is the typical scenario for how tank fires happen in Harris County, according to Steve Pepper, the director of crisis management for Phillips 66.
"Many times, it's lightning. It can be human induced. It can be equipment failure. But the majority of times, it is a weather event," Pepper said.
Most major tank storage facilities and terminals in our area have their own fire brigades. However, when a fire gets really big, as was the case of the ITC fire, they often depend on local municipal and volunteer fire departments to help battle the flames. But not all tank fires happen in large facilities.
"Many facilities out there that don't have internal fire departments and the local municipal fire department will be the first responder," Pepper said.
But local firefighters often aren't trained for these types of fires. Ami Van Norstrand is also with the Phillips 66 Crisis Management Department.
"This is something that they don't usually touch in a fire academy," Van Norstrand said.
So to better prepare members of the Harris County Fire Fighters Association, Phillips 66 picked up the tab to provide tank fire training at The Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service in College Station. It is one of the few places with practice tanks that can be lit on fire to teach firefighters how what it takes to put out tank fires.
In the classroom, firefighters learn about the different types and sizes of storage tanks that may contain petrochemicals. Then, outside in the demonstration area, they can climb on tanks to see what they look like inside and out. After the inspection, they got training on two types of fires: a rim burn and a full surface fire. Both types of fires require a two-step process. First, cool the tank, then douse it with foam.
Cooling takes water and lots of it, according to Van Norstrand.
"We're using an exponential amount of water that they're not used to," she said.
Ray Cook, the retired chief of the Sea Brook Fire Department, noted that "it's gotta be wet when it's going on there, otherwise that foam will not seal against that hot steel."
That seal is what smothers the flames.
Watch how it works in these two video clips.
In a rim fire, flames roar along the edge of the floating lid on the top liquid stored in the tank.
It shows how fast a fire can have the entire rim in flames. It also shows how fast trained firefighters can flood the tank top with foam to snuff out the blaze.
Now take a look at what happens when the entire surface of a petrochemical tank is set ablaze.
Almost immediately, flames shoot high into the air along with heavy billowing thick, black smoke. Watch how fast flooding the tank with foam smothers the blaze.
Cook explained how firefighters can get an assist in placing that foam from Mother Nature.
"The wind's gonna push it across. ... it will eventually go across the entire surface," Cook said.