Chemical fire

Dell Mangum has dozens of photos with handwritten notes of the big chemical fire in Fort Hall from 40 years ago. A few are arranged here in a collage.

BLACKFOOT — B shift at the Blackfoot Fire Department had been on duty for three-fourths of their 24-hour shift when the call came in.

We were all still awake after being called next door to the “Cop Shop” to check on a woman who had attempted to hang herself in the jail by using her pantyhose. The Klaxon speaker on the fire phone rang, alerting us to another alarm.

The Sheriffs Department notified us that the warehouse at Russet Chemical Company in Fort Hall was on fire and the Fort Hall Fire Department was requesting assistance. The Hires root beer wall clock in the engine room showed the time as 00:03 the start of Tuesday, April 22, 1980. This would be the start of another long day.

As the shift commander for B Shift, I should have been part of the responding personnel. But by the time I got off the phone with dispatch, four of my five firemen had already put on their turnouts. Steve Jones and Doug Rosin climbed in Engine Six, the district fire engine, while Jim St. John and Craig Falter jumped in the little tanker and headed for the fire.

As they followed the fire siren noise south of Blackfoot on US Highway 91, one of them radioed in that they could see a glow in the sky and requested more help. After paging for the on-call crew to respond to the station, I phoned Fire Chief Parley Wynn to advise him of the situation. He said he was headed to Fort Hall. Mike Strittmatter and I stayed at the station to monitor the radio for additional requests.

Part of the request for additional help was a phone call to the Idaho State Haz-Mat team based in Boise, and the National Chem-Trek Team based in Florida.

Russet Chemical warehouse is located in the Fort Hall townsite, approximately 10 miles south of Blackfoot, on the southern edge of the Blackfoot/Snake River Fire District Boundary. Their small warehouse supplied many area farmers with the herbicides and pesticides used to combat weeds, worms, and bugs in the thousands of acres of grain, sugar beets, and those world famous Idaho potatoes.

I knew that Kent Christensen was one of the salesmen/field representatives for Russet Chemical, so I phoned him. When he answered, I told him there was a fire in the Russet Chemical warehouse in Fort Hall. I asked him if he had any estimate of what might be in the warehouse. His voice changed, almost as if he was going through puberty again, as he squeaked out an answer in an after-midnight, still-asleep voice. Kent told me he didn’t have any exact figures, because it all depends on how many bags, buckets, or barrels are shipped in or out each day.

Kent guesstimated that chemicals such as Roundup, Malathion, and 2-4-Damine stored in quarts, one gallon, and five-gallon cans, plus the 55-gallon drums, would add up to over 1,000 gallons of various weed and bug killing liquids. Kent also told me that he was sure, “There is at least 45 or 50 tons of powdered material in the warehouse, because the farmers are busy planting and we unloaded a couple of semi-truck loads of Temic and Thimet just last week.” I told Kent thanks and then relayed his information to the responding firemen and Chief Wynn.

We realized immediately that this wasn’t going to be an easy fight. It would be a fight to the death with a fire-breathing, smoke-belching, environmental dragon. Doug Rosin, one of the firemen on my shift, and I had attended a class on “Hazardous Materials” only a week prior to this call. We were well aware of the multitude of health and environmental problems that could occur from pollution, when any hazardous chemicals are involved in a spill or fire. When these chemicals are mixed together in unknown quantities, the problems are drastically compounded.

The Fort Hall Fire Department and law enforcement personnel were the first ones at the scene. When the Blackfoot Fire Department arrived, they handed over control to Chief Wynn and Fort Hall left to respond to another call. The Chubbuck Fire Department responded from approximately 12 miles south of Fort Hall with more manpower, water, or to assist as needed.

The Russet Chemical warehouse is part of the Western Farm Services Fertilizer property located in Fort Hall between Highway 91 and the Union Pacific Railroad mainline. Since no one knew for sure what the contamination levels of the smoke might be from this over-sized environmental soup bowl, vehicle travel was rerouted around it. Chief Wynn radioed the station informing us to notify the UPRR about the potential for contamination from the low-hanging smoke wafting out over the nearby rails. Because of this fire, the Union Pacific Railroad shut down the busy mainline between Salt Lake City and Butte, MT, for nearly 36 hours. Highway 91 through the Fort Hall townsite would be closed for over a week.

The initial attempt to spray water on the fire in the interior of the warehouse seemed to just intensify the flames. As material from the paper bags was scattered by the force of the fire hoses, the fire was soon driven down between the piles of powdered chemicals. The chief decided that we couldn’t stop the interior fire and the 50’x100’ fiberglass covered wooden structure could collapse at any moment. He told the firemen, “Move back outside and set up a line to protect between the warehouse and the main office elevator building.”

Fire hoses were pulled back outside. Even though we were not actively trying to extinguish the fire, the efforts to keep it from spreading to the other building steadily used up the water supply on our fire engine. Additional tankers requested from Chubbuck soon arrived to replenish our dwindling supply. It turned out there was a fire hydrant hidden in the weeds about a half block south of the Russet Chemical scale house. But nobody noticed it until after we had hoses connected from tankers to pumpers with hose lines scattered all the way around the buildings. It looked like a pot of multicolored spaghetti had spilled where we were set up on Highway 91

TYhe highway soon had police cars, fire engines, water tankers, and fire hose scattered across both lanes of traffic for at least a city block with all of the red, white and blue flashing lights reflecting off of the low hanging smoke, it looked like part of a fourth of July celebration complete with aerial displays and explosions.

During the initial attack to put out the warehouse fire, no one noticed the solitary gasoline fuel pump standing at attention next to the big white propane tank containing the fuel for the office heating unit. Hose streams were immediately adjusted to try to keep the fire away from these flammable fixtures.

While the firemen were spraying down these two extremely flammable items to keep them cool, some five-gallon buckets and 55-gallon drums of liquids in the warehouse started to explode. With a hiss and a swoosh, some of the containers actually skyrocketed 200-300 feet in the air. Many of them crashed back to earth with a bang and a clatter a block or two away from their launch pad.

The fire chief, with advice from Bill Fruetel with the EPA, and Richard “Boom Boom” Green, a chemical engineer with the INEL, made the decision to let this fire free-burn rather than causing additional ground pollution by applying too much water. A load of sand was hauled in to create a dike along the low side of the parking lot as an attempt to contain any water run-off.

As the morning sun pulled its nose up over the hills at approximately 06:00, on the east side of Fort Hall, it pushed the dark night off into the water of the American Falls Reservoir on the west. The fires glow started to diminish. Most of the firemen were allowed to return to their respective fire stations after this fire finally burned down enough to start looking like an over-sized campfire. Strittmatter and I responded to the fire scene to relieve Rosin, and Steve Jones. Falter and St. John headed back to the station in the “little tanker.” Now that daylight showed us where the fire hydrant had been hiding all night, it wasn’t needed any more. Dave Krumenacker, one of our volunteer firemen, stayed to help us wash dirt off some of the fire hose and get it ready to send home.

Until a final decision was made about what to do with the charred remains of this pile of contaminated ashes, it was determined that the Blackfoot Fire Department should babysit them. If there was a flare-up, we would spray just enough water to cool down the hot spots but try not to stir the dust or make additional run-off. It wasn’t long before the babysitting was down to a one-man job.

Those of us who remained at the scene started taking turns watching the fire or trying to take a nap. I chose a location on the railroad tracks away from the smoke and the noise for a bed. I was trying to get some needed sleep after being awake for over 24 hours.

I was almost to the edge of never-never land when an irritating drone started to make my closed eyelids flutter. As I slowly opened one eye and squinted into the early morning sunshine, I slowly realized the insistent whump, whump, whump, whump noise was coming from a helicopter circling overhead. Big white letters on the side identified it as Channel 2 News from Salt Lake City. As the chopper started to land nearby, I watched the detritus and bits of burned paper scraps whirling away from the rotor backwash. A cameraman and a reporter came over to interview us. We gave them a brief story about the fire. They left in a hurry after they heard that nobody could predict the potential health problems from breathing the contaminated smoke, or what end results this fire might have on the area’s future.

Red Perry, the Fort Hall Fire Chief, came back to the fire at around noon. He brought us a cold drink and some warm chicken, not exactly breakfast food, but it was appreciated. A “HAZ-MAT” team from the EPA finally made it to the scene about mid-afternoon with some cleanup suggestions and safety precautions.

Several dump truck loads of sand were hauled to the scene and spread over the remaining material in hopes of smothering the fire and eliminating the smoke. Fire personnel began to rotate the babysitting chores throughout the afternoon and evening. After a continued fire watch without any flare-ups, the Blackfoot department went home, after being on scene three minutes shy of 24 hours.

Two days later, our department was requested to help with dust control as the burned material was scooped up and loaded on dump trucks. With our helmets, coats, pants, and gloves on, we resembled the Imperial Guard in the movie “Star Wars.” When we put on an air-tank and face mask, to keep us from breathing in contaminated dust, they completed the ensemble. With a one-inch red rubber fire hose dragging behind us, it looked like the tether line for an astronaut on a spacewalk. We were required to assist on two additional days as cleanup progressed.

The real trick to keep the dust at a minimum was to wet it down, yet not so wet that there was any water runoff or seepage into the sand. Each truckload was completely wrapped in thick plastic and covered with a heavy canvas tarp. The whole thing was roped down tightly to keep the dust from blowing out on the trip to a Haz-Mat storage site near Boise. This contaminated material was dumped into one of the old abandoned missile silos that was scatted around the United States. By the time the last of the nearly 40 trucks were loaded it looked like a truck stop parking lot on Highway 91.

As the last of the dust and rubble was swept into 55-gallon “over-pack” drums, and loaded onto a truck, the “new parking lot” was sprinkled with enough powdered lime to make the area look like a tropical beach. The lime was rinsed off with a Clorox and water solution similar to doing a load of laundry.

One of the last items loaded up for salvage was a huge three-wheeled fertilizer spreader. It had been parked close enough to the fire that the extra-wide rubber tires had ignited and burned off. But the firemen had kept it cool enough that the fuel tank didn’t catch fire. As the “BIG GATOR” was raised up from the ground, charred wire hoops dangled from the wheel rims like bracelets on a skinny woman’s arm.

During the critique about this event held on May 8, 1980, it was determined that 38 different agencies had been involved in this incident. Approximately 800 people had been evacuated from the immediate area and several had been hospitalized for smoke inhalation treatment and released. Russet Chemical estimated their losses at $130,000 for the building and equipment, $120,000 for chemicals, and the cleanup costs totaled another $100,000. It was determined to be an arson fire, but as I write this story years after the fire, nobody has ever been charged or arrested.

Blackfoot firemen were on the scene for a total of nearly 250 man-hours. This total doesn’t count the hours at the station washing the trucks and firefighting clothing or the time involved for the Fort Hall Fire or Chubbuck Fire Departments or any of the other agencies. A dumpster was filled with a mixture of Clorox bleach and water, then shovels were used to stir the combination of helmets, gloves boots, pants, and jackets to disinfect them.

The final inventory indicated the presence of 58 different chemicals including eight types of insecticides. There were nearly 84 1/2 tons of dry material and 3,012 gallons of liquids. Most of this polyglot mixture was, 81,000 pounds of death, in a powdered form of Methyl Isocyanate known as Temic. The liquid form of this mixture is the same chemical that killed over 2,000 people and injured nearly 5,000 more, three years later in Bhopal, India.

When the cleanup was finished, an estimated 600 tons of contaminated material, including charred building remains, baked chemicals, and saturated sand, were hauled off, either to a local landfill or to a hazardous material handling and disposal site.

After a week of baby-sitting this over-sized environmental soup bowl, B-Shift was ready to go back to something less exciting.

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