FireEngineering Reports on Beacon Mill Fire

Report on Beacon Fire from FireEngineering
(from /display_article/211590/25/none/none/Feat/FIRE-IN-ABANDONED-MILL:-LESSONS-LEARNED )

At 03:55 a.m. on Wednesday, September 3, 2003, the Buncombe County emergency operations center (BCEOC) received a call reporting a fire at the Beacon plant and dispatched the SVFD to the incident. Three firefighters, including Assistant Chief Dennis Gregory, responded on Engine 6 from a firehouse adjacent to the mill that had been built on land donated to the department by the Beacon Manufacturing Company. As the engine turned the corner onto Whitson Avenue, firefighters observed flames coming through the roof of the four-story section of the mill.The fire would be fought defensively. The primary objectives would be to contain the fire, protect the exposures, and ensure the safety of emergency responders and the residents of the mill village. Gregory assumed command and began to formulate a plan to accomplish these objectives. He ordered additional alarms and made a special request for aerial apparatus.

The BCEOC, which uses computer-aided dispatch equipment, dispatched additional companies to the fire and began to assign other apparatus to move up/fill in assignments. The additional alarms brought all available SVFD members to the scene from their homes. Chief of Department Anthony Penland, the son of former Beacon mill workers, assumed the duties of incident commander. Deputy Chief Larry Pierson became the operations officer; Gregory was assigned as a sector officer. The command post was established at the firehouse. The operations section was in front of the firehouse.

Because of the size of the mill and the distance responding apparatus had to travel to reach the scene, all companies received placement orders as they arrived. Pierson used a large aerial photograph of the facility and a large, white board to help him strategically locate apparatus. He ensured that check-in lists had been completed. After about an hour, a staging area was established in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church, a block from the scene. Lt. Dave Strickland and Firefighter Doug Lane managed the staging area. Establishing the staging area made it easier to track resources. Getting a count of engines, ladders, tankers, support vehicles, and personnel in the staging area allowed for better distribution of those resources and provided a foundation on which to build a coordinated effort.

Each of the volunteer fire departments in Buncombe County is a separate corporation. Although they frequently train together and often assist one another, nine of the 24 departments use slightly different incident command system (ICS) geographical terminology. Additionally, a number of departments from other counties were responding to this incident. To eliminate confusion, each company was given a printout with an aerial photo of the scene that designated the exact position where the company would be assigned and the sector designation of this position. All companies were operating on the North Carolina state emergency radio frequency. The single frequency sufficed because of the orderly expansion and contraction of the ICS and an insistence on radio discipline. In spite of the scope of the operation, radio communication problems were minimal, although additional channels would have been useful.

During the initial stages of the fire, Buncombe County Emergency Services Director Jerry Vehaun responded and established the emergency operations center at the firehouse, which is equipped with computers, printers, telephones, conference tables, overhead projectors, a kitchen, and a generator capable of producing enough electricity to operate all the equipment in the building. The mobile emergency operations center bus that would normally have been used remained available in case it would be needed at a more remote simultaneous incident. Vehaun and his staff worked to support the IC by ensuring that any needed municipal, county, state, federal, or private resources would be available. An engine was positioned on Richmond Avenue specifically to allow for a rapid response to any simultaneous incident that might occur in the mill village and to extinguish any fires that might result from embers falling on the roofs of the residential structures. As it turned out, no embers fell in the village, but they did fall on lawns as far as five miles away. County environmental health employees monitored the air quality.
Residents were sheltered in place until approximately 7:30 p.m. Wednesday evening when elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide were detected in the air. It was decided that all residents within 1,000 feet of the mill would be evacuated. County EMS and law enforcement personnel along with community volunteers conducted the evacuation and established a list of evacuees.

Some residents elected to go to the Williams School, but most preferred to relocate to the homes of family or friends. After several hours, air quality readings normalized and the weather specialist determined that the wind would not shift in the direction of the village; the evacuation status was changed from mandatory to voluntary.

The operation continued to go well. By Thursday morning, firefighters were confident that the threat to the community had been greatly reduced. Vehicles were refueled by county school department and city of Asheville fuel trucks, crews were relieved as operational periods expired, and volunteers from several community organizations were cooking meals for firefighters at the First Baptist Church, where the staging area was located. A dormitory had also been established at the church. Pierson transferred command of the operations section to Lt. Jeremy Knighton and did a walk-around of the site. He found that a section of the mill thought to present an elevated hazard to exposures because of cotton bales stacked inside was in fact empty. A private contractor's demolition crane was on-scene to knock down unstable walls; the incident was evolving flawlessly. It seemed that pouring water on the mill for a few more days would successfully extinguish the largest structure fire in department history.

It was discovered on Friday morning that oil had been leaking into the Swannanoa River. A shutoff valve controlling the flow from one of the four tanks allowed oil to enter a creek that flowed under the mill and then into the river. It was not known who had opened the valve. [On investigation, responders said they did not open the valves. There is some speculation that the arsonist(s) may have done so after the fire department ensured that the valves were closed.

Deputy Chief Pierson is absolutely sure that the valves were still in the closed position the day before, that the valve was not defective, and that it unquestionably had been opened.] The valve was closed, and a private environmental cleanup firm was contacted. Already on-scene were the regional response team and the Buncombe County Haz Mat Unit. Firefighters worked with the contractor to set up booms and underflow dams. Vacuum trucks were used to recover the oil. A fire engine drafted clean water from the creek before it flowed by the oil tank, became contaminated, and flowed under the plant. This action reduced the flow of the oil-contaminated creek water into the river.

Because of the rapid response and the hard work of the 80 to 100 people assigned to controlling and cleaning the spill, the situation was quickly resolved. Damage to river plant and animal life was minimal and was not detectable beyond two miles. More than 15,000 gallons of #6 fuel oil were recovered and 45,000 gallons of oil-contaminated water treated. The four oil tanks, which have a combined capacity of approximately 250,000 gallons, have now been emptied. In retrospect, although the valves were behind a locked fence, it would have been prudent to have had firefighters or law enforcement officials guard the valves to ensure that unauthorized personnel would not open them.
By Monday, most of the fire in the now partially collapsed mill had been extinguished, but the extensive area of the fire scene made crowd control extremely challenging. Spectators were crossing into the hot zone to carry away bricks as souvenirs of the mill, which had been an important part of the community for generations. Firefighters decided to reduce the chance of injury to spectators by moving a pile of bricks to a safe area and allowing open access to the pile.


Tuesday, six days after the fire began, while investigators from the Asheville-Buncombe Arson Task Force, the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) waited for the debris to cool enough to allow them to search for evidence, a still intact laboratory was found to contain hundreds of containers of various chemicals including ether and hydrogen peroxide, two chemicals that can destabilize with age. Environmental workers promptly removed the dangerous chemicals, which necessitated the temporary evacuation of several nearby commercial establishments. Chemicals that lacked explosive potential were removed later in the week. The extensive damage prevented investigators from finding a definite cause of the fire, which is thought to have been started, intentionally or not, by human hand. In total, 32 fire departments and 367 fire personnel were involved in the effort; 91 firefighters were actively engaged at the company level at the height of the fire. Additionally, 22 EMS personnel, 38 logistical support personnel, and nine people from other agencies were involved. Equipment used included 24 engines, seven ladder trucks, seven tankers, 17 support vehicles, 19 patrol cars, and four ambulances. The use of the ATV to shuttle personnel, supplies, and equipment was so extensive that a set of tires had to be replaced. Approximately 30 million gallons of water from the municipal system and 10 million gallons of drafted water were used. In spite of the disastrous potential, no injuries were reported.

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