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'Something this big': Fuel tank blaze tested limits of West Fargo Fire Department

Cleanup gets underway at the fire scene at the Magellan tank farm in West Fargo on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018.David Samson / The Forum

WEST FARGO — Recent training on fighting oil fires and pre-planning for an emergency operations center, plus an eye in the sky with a drone, were big advantages for local firefighters battling a blaze fed by 1,200 barrels of leaked diesel fuel at the Magellan Midstream Partners tank farm Sunday, Feb. 18, West Fargo Fire Chief Dan Fuller said.

"We've never dealt with something this big before," Fuller said. It's "5:15 a.m. on a random Sunday morning. And all of a sudden you have a huge incident on your doorstep. It's hard to be ready for that."

The blaze scorched and blackened the outside of a 43,000-barrel tank that held 30,000 barrels of diesel fuel. It was fought with the help of firefighters from several metro agencies. The operation was a challenge for West Fargo's small department, which recently added full-time firefighters to its volunteer squad.

"It isn't in our wheelhouse to deal with a large fire, but we were able to handle it," Fuller said.

On Monday, Feb. 19, Magellan said 40 employees, specialists and contractors were cleaning up oil, water and firefighting foam that remained after the diesel fire at the tank farm at 902 Main Ave. E.

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During the fire fight, the diesel fuel that hadn't burned off mixed with 500 gallons of foam and 400,000 gallons of water. It was sucked up by vacuum trucks and removed from the scene, Magellan spokesman Tom Byers said.

Crews were also scraping up contaminated snow, ice and gravel to be taken to a disposal facility. None of the diesel, water or foam had escaped a dike around the tank or made it into drains, Byers said.

Air-quality tests at the scene and in surrounding neighborhoods had acceptable results, Byers said. A Sanford Health spokesperson said there were no signs of patients who visited the emergency room or urgent care clinics with respiratory problems or other issues related to the fire, which created a plume of hazardous smoke.

The cause of the fire is still under investigation. On Sunday, officials said the fire occurred on piping connections next to the fuel storage tank.

An emergency operations center set up at City Hall brought together more than a dozen local agencies. From there, officials made the decisions to tell area residents to shelter in place to avoid exposure to the smoke and monitored the plume "so we were able to see in real time where the products of combustion were going, and what neighborhoods they were affecting," Fuller said.

A snowstorm that blew in Sunday morning was problematic because it changed the direction of the plume, Fuller said. "If it was a nice, hot day, it would have been up and out of the city."

A drone supplied by a Grand Forks law enforcement team was also "extremely helpful," providing live video of the fire and firefighting efforts.

Fuller said that when responding to similar fires in the future, he'd like to have more firefighting foam on hand. "We're looking at the idea of having a second foam trailer, to have one in Fargo and West Fargo," he said.

West Fargo firefighters had taken part in pipeline safety training in mid-January, Fuller said, so they already knew the people from Magellan that they would work with in an emergency.

"We knew within the first 30 minutes what was burning, how much was burning," Fuller said.

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They also knew that because of the construction of the fuel tank and the type of fuel they were dealing with, there likely wouldn't be a catastrophic failure of the tank or an explosion, he said.

Officials called Texas-based Williams Fire and Hazard Control for advice on how to fight the blaze on the outside of the tank. Getting enough foam and the right application equipment to direct it on the fire was one of the toughest obstacles, he said.

BNSF railroad had 500 gallons of foam staged with the Fargo Fire Department. Hector International Airport had 385 gallons of foam in 55-gallon drums and a truck with 210 gallons.

As a contingency, if the first attempt to snuff out the fire failed, there were 2,000 gallons of foam available from a Mandan refinery, and 1,250 gallons offered by a Minneapolis firm, Fuller said.

Firefighters set up 1,200 feet of water supply lines and relay pumps to keep up water pressure. The dike around the tank also had to be improved by a contractor.

Efforts were made to transfer fuel from the tank even as the fire raged, officials said Sunday.

Once everything was in place, the blaze was out in 10 minutes, Fuller said.

Magellan announced that pipeline and truck-loading operations resumed Monday afternoon at the tank farm. Diesel fuel prices in the area shouldn't be affected by the brief shutdown of the facility, said Mike Rud, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Marketers and Retail Association.

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Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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