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Turlock Fire trains for crude oil disaster
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The Turlock Fire Department has been participating in training sessions in Colorado that are designed to teach fire fighters the strategies and tactics needed to fight crude oil fires. The three-day session includes simulations of train derailments carrying crude oil. - photo by Photo by Turlock Firefighter Dale Melden

As more crude oil reaches its final destination via railroads, fire departments across the country, including the Turlock Fire Department, are lining up for the specialized training and equipment needed to combat the highly flammable substance in the wake of a train derailment.

Bakken crude oil is routinely shipped into California, traveling along the Burlington North Santa Fe railroad line that runs through the eastern edge of Turlock and Denair.  Turlock Fire Chief Tim Lohman said in March that should one of those train cars experience a derailment, the fire department would be unable to manage the fire because they do not have the knowledge, staffing or resources to tackle such a task.

In an effort to bolster their abilities and training, the fire department has sent one fire fighter and two fire captains to the Security and Emergency Response Training Center in Pueblo, Colorado. Sponsored by Union Pacific Railroad, the Center is staging training sessions on how to fight a crude oil fire.

“They simulate a large train derailment and crude oil fire,” said Turlock Firefighter Dale Melden, the first from Turlock to attend the training. “These crude oil trains travel through our city on a nearly daily basis. They are extremely difficult to handle without specialized training and require an incredible amount of firefighting resources.”

The fire department is hoping to send at least one more fire fighter to a training in October and has been lobbying Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Turlock), who is the chairman of the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Subcommittee, for additional funding for equipment and training, said Turlock Fire Division Chief Brian White.

“The training gives us a greater understanding of what is being shipped and how it is being shipped and a greater knowledge of how to deal with it,” Melden said.

One lesson learned from the training is that Turlock does not have the equipment needed to fight a crude oil fire. Using water on a crude oil fire would actually make the fire worse, because it would spread the flames around, White said. Instead, fire fighters would need foam to smother the fire and they would need a lot of it.

“It would be extremely challenging to find any agency within Stanislaus County that had the amount of foam it would take to fight one of these fires," White said.

The Bakken crude oil comes from a 200,000-square mile territory expanding into Montana and Canadian provinces, but is primarily in North Dakota. The oil reserves became more lucrative in recent years with the advancement of extraction technology, but it has also raised concerns about transportation. The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Railroad Administration and the California Public Utilities Commission, which oversees railroads in California, have all identified shipments carrying Bakken crude oil as having an “increased risk of explosion and harm,” according to the CPUC’s report on “Railroad Safety: Addressing increased hazards from oil by rail.”

The report states that oil pipelines are at capacity and the amount of trains carrying crude oil is expected to increase. The California Energy Commission is projecting a 25-fold increase in the number of shipments coming into the state in 2016.

In response to the safety concerns the CPUC has requested more track and rail safety inspectors and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is establishing new rules for shipping crude oil and proposing stronger tank cars.

The Federal Railroad Administration recently instructed railroads transporting crude oil to notify state emergency response commissions of the expected movement of Bakken crude oil trains through their regions. They also have to inform them of the estimated volume of crude oil being transported the route it will take and the frequency of train traffic.

Railroad companies are also taking steps to increase safety. Union Pacific is using lasers and ultrasound to identify rail imperfections, as well as trackside sensors that provide real-time analysis of every rail car moving on their system.

“Leaders at Union Pacific are working closely with the AAR, (Association of American Railroads) PHMSA, our customers and others in our industry, like the American Petroleum Institute (API), to improve the safety of crude-by-rail transport,” Union Pacific wrote in a news release on crude by rail.  “We are carefully evaluating the process by which we determine freight routes and are looking at following the same route protocols we follow when we transport hazardous materials such as ammonia or chlorine.”