Industrial Inferno: Fighting the Mother of All Fires

February 4, 2004

Facing the Flames airs on Dangerous Jobs in the U.S. Thursday, February 5, at 8 p.m. ET/ 9 p.m. PT on the National Geographic Channel.

During a fierce tropical storm along the United States Gulf Coast on June 7, 2001, the horizon exploded 10 miles (16 kilometers) west of New Orleans—lightning had struck the Orion Norco oil refinery. Moments later the world's largest tank fire was born. Soaring over 250 feet (76 meters), spanning 265 feet (80 meters) in diameter, and containing 300,000 barrels of fuel (15 million gallons or 57 million liters), Louisiana had a monster on its hands.

Minutes after the eruption, the phone rang at the Williams Fire and Hazard Control (WFHC) office in Vidor, Texas. WFHC is a family run business dedicated to tackling the toughest fires on the planet.

"That's how it starts—with a phone call," said Dwight Williams, a world-renowned expert on industrial firefighting and president of WFHC. "Next is sizing up the dragon by getting all the information possible, then mobilizing the Williams team for duty. These types of fires aren't extinguished easily. And they burn hotter and longer than almost all other fires on the planet."

Williams's plan of attack for the 270-foot (82-meter) Louisiana gasoline storage tank was to lather the oil with a mix of nearly 800,000 gallons (three million liters) of foam and water using a Hydro-Foam technology nozzle. The foam is of two types: Footprint Technology and 3M AFFF/ATC.

Industrial fires—massive infernos that are fueled by oil, gasoline, and other flammable liquids—cannot be extinguished by water alone. They require special chemicals, firefighting discipline, and complicated tactics. These fires can be explosive, sometimes flashing from dangerous to catastrophic in just a matter of seconds.

Quenching the World's Most Massive Refinery Fire

To put out the Louisiana fire, Dwight and his team of firemen set up two liquid shooting guns, or hoses, capable of spewing 12,000 gallons (45,500 liters) of water and foam per minute. With only a limited amount of the foam and water, he wasn't sure the concoction would smother the fire in time.

Fires require three ingredients: oxygen, fuel, and heat. If any of those elements are missing, a fire won't burn for long—and won't start in the first place.

Thirteen hours after the lightning struck, the Norco refinery fire was extinguished when the oil, smothered by the foam, was cut off from the oxygen supply.

History took notice—the largest petroleum storage tank fire in the world was overcome.

New Technology Aiding Firefighters

Continued on Next Page >>


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