Industrial Inferno: Fighting the Mother of All Fires

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Channel
February 4, 2004
Facing the Flames airs on target="_new">Dangerous Jobs in the U.S. Thursday, February
5, at 8 p.m. ET/ 9 p.m. PT on the National Geographic

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

The oil industry began in America in the late 1800s; with it came fierce and uncontrollable petroleum fires. Until just 20 years ago large industrial fires—those over 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter, often burned until the fuel ran out. The cost to the environment, business, and human health was immense.

Last year alone, 110 firefighters died while on duty in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), based in Washington, D.C. Some of the deaths occurred while combating industrial fires, for which city firemen are unprepared.

Today, with new equipment, such as Williams's trademark ThunderStorm—a new highly concentrated chemical foam, and the Hydro-Chem, a nozzle that shoots dry chemicals from the center while other, often denser, liquids are shot from the periphery—firemen can remain at safer shooting distances from fires.

But danger still looms, and the variety of industrial fires never allows the Williams outfit to rest for long. The WFHC team fight major fires every few months—sometimes traveling to places like Turkey and the Amazon to combat international industrial disasters.

"We're constantly changing tactics, modifying old equipment, and exploring new technology to battle these fires. This is a family run business, and it's my family on the line. We keep on top of the innovation side," said Randy Williams, operations manager at WFHC, and Dwight Williams's sister. Randy Williams, 49, began in the firefighting business with her father, Les Williams, while she was still a teenager. Later she graduated from Texas A&M University, in College Station, with a degree in industrial safety.

WFHC is one of the leading suppliers of industrial firefighting equipment to refineries and fuel factories worldwide. Part of their success stems from the fact that they not only make equipment, but run firefighting teams that test new equipment on raging infernos.

In August 1999 in Wortham, Texas, an oil pipeline exploded, burning wildly for several days. Local firefighters were overwhelmed. Specialists from Williams were called in and doused the flames within three hours. Using the Hydro-Chem nozzle, they extinguished the fire with the 3M ATC foam, which smothers fires by forming a barrier between the fuel surface and the atmosphere above it.

In May 2000 in Eunice, Louisiana, a chemical freight train derailed spilling a deadly mix of acid, caustic soda, dichloropropane, ethylene oxide, hexane, methyl chloride, pentane, dicyclopentadiene, phenol, polyethylene resins, thiapentanal, and toluene diisocyanate. Tank cars ignited and several volatile chemicals burned. Approximately 3,500 residents from the town of Eunice were evacuated. Williams's experts arrived, and in a few hours the fires were extinguished and a crisis averted. The 3M ATC foam was used.

Distance Is Safety For Firefighters

"One of the main goals of my technology is to give the firefighters distance from the fire. Then they have a fair game to play," said Dwight Williams.

His sophisticated monitor nozzles have helped change the industry and his profession by shooting 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) of water per minute, keeping the firefighters further from the heat and flames. Most other nozzles and pumps don't come close to releasing that amount of liquid.

"Our regular fire engine vehicle pumps only shoot about 1,500 to 3,000 gallons [5,500 to 11,000 liters] of water per minute," said Tony Baldassano, 57, and a 28-year veteran firefighter who now is Engine Company captain at Fire Station No. 48, in San Pedro, California. "In major fires we are sometimes under-gunned."

That's a problem in a city like Los Angeles where firefighters responded to 689,803 distress calls and over a thousand fires just last year.

Last month, Dwight Williams dedicated a part of his business to inventing new technology to help municipal firefighters. He brings with him 30 years of innovative technology and 70 firefighting patents.

"There really hasn't been much innovation in municipal firefighting equipment for 20 years," says Dwight Williams, who founded his company in 1969. "It's a shame because other fields of firefighting, like contending with industrial infernos involving hazardous materials, have undergone plenty of change. So we're now aiming for that market—and hoping we'll be able to save lives and property."

Dangerous Jobs, Thursdays at 8 p.m. ET/9 p.m. PT in the United States, is available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to learn more about it >>

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.