‘Catastrophic’ situations covered
by BETH ALTENA
Rockford Fire Marshal Mike Reus said he would guess a recent explosion that blew a trailer home apart likely involved a propane fire and that cases where even stick-built homes are literally destroyed in an explosion are also likely caused by a propane leak that becomes ignited.
Area firefighters were trained on handling what the Michigan Propane Gas Association (MPGA) called ‘catastrophic situations’ on Thursday, August 30 at the Cedar Spring Fire Department. The event included increasingly difficult propane fires with flames shooting more than 60 feet into the air. During the training a nearby tree was accidently ignited and had to be hosed down.
Reus said understanding the nature of propane is an important skill for firefighters and the “big, big” thing about propane is that it is heavier than air and will sink and pool rather than rise and disperse. The potential explosion from such a leak can indeed be considered catastrophic.
“If you see a house just blown clear off the foundation, it is probably propane,” Reus said. He noted that in the case of the Squire office, a propane leak would doubtless go to the lower level of the building, where most homes have furnaces and other mechanicals located.
Reus said in the case of a home closed off for the winter, even a minute leak over time would result in a catastrophic explosion. He noted that even the flicking on of a lightswitch—for instance in the middle of the night when a person gets up to use the bathroom—would be enough to ignite an explosion. “Even turning on a light results in a small electric spark that people never see,” he described.
Reus said propane is a mixture of chemicals that is, in part, a byproduct of the processing of gasoline. LPG stands for Liquid Petroleum Gas and he said in its earliest uses the compound was used as a burning source for heat. He explained that propane here in the United States may differ from the mixture used in other countries, making the handling and use of the gas a tricky matter.
During the controlled propane fires, teams of first responders practiced techniques to subdue flaming tanks with extremely hot fires. The techniques include a team of several firefighters advancing as a single unit with flanking firefighters creating a wall of water to protect the team and advance the progress to the fire. As firefighters reached the tank, one first responder practiced reaching a hand through the flames to manually close off the source of the burning propane.
“I had to do that on a propane tanker at the Meijer warehouse in Walker,” Reus stated, pointing out that his incident was also a training practice. The practices build teamwork and teach first responders how they can overcome the heat to reach the source. “You can’t stop or abandon the team or the other people would be hurting,” he described. He also explained that, in addition to having a plan to fight a fire, first responders always prefer to have a back-up plan ready to go if something bad happens to the first team. “If you looked around you probably would have noticed there was another team in the background ready to go in.” He also added that in a real situation there would be much more happening, such as decisions about evacutation, containment of hazardous materials, and what might be the potential scope of an explosion of the tank.
Reus said another very dangerous aspect of propane fires is that the gas comes out of the tank in a very cold and compressed state. He said escaping propane on a bare hand would freeze skin. He noted that even the oxygen in the firefighters Self Contained Breathing Aparatus is cold due to being condensed. As it is released, the gas changes from one form to another, expanding. “While it is going from one form to another it is most volatile,” he noted.
Reus said over the years propane was considered for other uses, including a power source for vehicles. In the 1950s he said Chicago had a large fleet of buses that ran on propane. Reus said he even mildly considered fitting a vehicle for propane as an alternate to more expensive gasoline, but realized the driver of such a vehicle would be dependent on finding a propane source like Holton’s LP Gas open when the tank ran low.
Another concern for first responders are the large propane tanks that provide fuel for rural homes. “That would be something we would need to be aware of in a home fire,” he noted. The large containers, referred to as “pigs” contain tremendous amounts of the gas compared to the common gas grill propane tank. Safe distances for fighting fire and for evacuation depend on the state of the pig. “You certainly wouldn’t want to be walking in a cloud of propane.”
Reus said his thoughts on propane run vehicles made him wonder how differently first responders would handle an accident scene if a vehicle was powered with something other than gasoline. He said he had a vehicle at his house once that was running with a mixture that included recycled restaurant grease that came from Rockford restaurants. His concern came from the fact that first responders might have no way of knowing if a different fuel source was involved.
“It certainly didn’t have anything on it saying it was running on restaurant grease,” he said. “What would happen if that was in an accident? You wouldn’t want to put water on it.” He noted that the City of Grand Rapids once had an incident where flammable fuel found its way into sewer lines—a very dangerous situation.
The expansive nature of propane was another important trait of the substance that Reus said firefighters need to understand to best fight propane fires. Propane, in expanding from its cold, compressed state expands 270 times as it goes from a liquid to a gas form. In the case of a pig located near a home on fire, heat can cause the contents of the tank to become a boiling liquid—a term known as BLEVE. BLEVE, a Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion, is a deadly scenario. A pig allowed to become hot and reach a BLEVE situation can explode with such a force that it can send debris from the exploding tank three quarters of a mile away. The danger of such debris to first responders or the public would be deadly.
Reus invited anyone who is interesting in seeing for themselves the danger of propane to search BLEVE on you tube to see footage of a pig under the strain of a fire. Those who do will certainly appreciate the time first responders take to know how to properly handle a propane fire if one happens nearby.