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Crews better-trained, but oil train fires overwhelm

FARGO-Local fire chiefs say their crews are better-prepared for a fiery train derailment since the 2013 accident near Casselton-but also said oil train fires are too intense to fight.

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A fireball sends thick black smoke billowing from burning railroad tanker cars at Heimdal, N.D., as rail and rescue officials stay back nearly a mile from the derailment. John Steiner / Forum News Service
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FARGO-Local fire chiefs say their crews are better-prepared for a fiery train derailment since the 2013 accident near Casselton-but also said oil train fires are too intense to fight.

Wednesday: City evacuated after North Dakota train derailment

The issue of the safety of hauling Bakken crude oil by rail resurfaced when a BNSF Railway train derailed Wednesday near Heimdal in Wells County, about 80 miles southeast of Minot. Between six and 10 cars derailed and caught fire, officials said.

No injuries were reported, but about 40 people were evacuated from the town and surrounding area as a precaution.

News coverage of flames and black smoke once again billowing into the air recalled the scene a mile west of Casselton on Dec. 30, 2013, when 20 tanker cars derailed; 18 were punctured, exploded and erupted in flames.

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"You'll never fight that fire," said Tim McLean, chief of the volunteer Casselton Fire Department.

The flames were so intense-and punctuated by explosions that sent fireballs hundreds of feet into the air-that firefighters remained half a mile from the blaze, their cheeks warmed by the eruptions.

Since then, many of the department's firefighters have attended special training classes at a center near Pueblo, Colo., for responding to hazardous materials fires. By late summer, half of the department will have received special training.

"We have a certain sense of what we're going to do when we respond to these things," McLean said. "We know more of what to expect."

Similarly, 15 Fargo firefighters have received training in hazardous materials fires, and the department has response plans in place that have been tested through tabletop exercises, said Fargo Fire Chief Steve Dirksen.

Yet to be implemented new tanker car standards and new conditioning standards to reduce the volatility of Bakken crude oil before shipment are improving safety, he said.

Gasoline, which moves in great quantities, is only slightly less volatile than the new standards imposed by the state of North Dakota, which took effect in April, Dirksen said.

"It has made it safer," he said. "It's just part of the risk that's there."

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Also, he said, BNSF has staged a foam spray truck at a Fargo Fire Department station-equipment that was dispatched Wednesday morning to respond to the fire near Heimdal.

"I think we have taken a lot of good steps," Dirksen said, adding that trains through Fargo-Moorhead now travel at slower speeds, between 25 and 35 mph.

"We are well-prepared," Dirksen said. Still, he added, referring to a fire of Casselton proportions, a fire of "any magnitude like that is going to quickly overwhelm our resources."

Related Topics: CASSELTON
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