North Dakota Firefighters Look For Lessons From Industrial Fire

February 26, 2009

A year after a fire destroyed much of a metal-cleaning plant in Wahpeton, North Dakota, area firefighters are looking back at lessons learned. They say 18-below-zero temperatures and 25 mph winds may have seemed like the worst possible conditions, but may have helped in the long run.

Wahpeton firefighters got the report of the fire at the Industrial Plating Corp. around 2:30 a.m. on President’s Day 2008. Crews from the neighboring towns of Dwight and Breckenridge, Minn., came to help.

The firefighters used foam rather than water, because of the industrial chemicals feeding the fire. The plant used chemicals to clean metal.

“We critiqued the fire after it was done, and probably our biggest thing is, we should have let it burn. But we still saved half the building,” said Wahpeton Assistant Fire Chief Joel Hermes. “According to the Haz Mat people, we were better off letting the chemical burn, it’s less of a hazard.”

One firefighter was treated for minor chemical burns on his feet. No other injuries were reported.

A decision was made to cut the building in half, saving the company’s threading division, and to evacuate south side residents in a nearly 40 block radius.

“We were fortunate the wind was the way it was,” said Breckenridge, Minn., Fire Chief Paul Sorum. It helped control the air pollution, he said.

“The nice thing is that the three departments that were there, we did train together. So, just knowing how each works really helped out a lot,” said Dwight firefighter Kyle Shockley.

After about 12 hours, firefighters reported the blaze contained. Officials lifted the evacuation order by 4 p.m.

Firefighters continued to battle hot spots throughout the night, but they felt the cold air helped slow the chemical runoff.

More than 400,000 gallons of water were pumped out to dilute any chemicals that made it into the storm sewer system and into the Bois de Sioux River.

North Dakota’s state water quality director, Dennis Fewless, said zinc, chrome and trace metals at the site had to be cleaned up and some of the work took months. Crews scraped residue off the ice, he said.

“We never could find any concentrations in the river that was above any alert level,” he said.

“The site is all cleaned up now,” Fewless said Tuesday. “We did monitoring on the river and we didn’t find any effects.”

The fire left dozens of people out of work. Some have since been hired by Heartland Precision, which also purchased equipment from the plant and took over its threading business.

In April, Fire Marshal Ray Lambert ruled the cause of the fire could not be determined because of the amount of damage.

Looking back, Richland County Emergency Manager Brett Lambrecht said a public information line would have been helpful to handle more then 2,000 calls throughout the day from residents searching for information.

Overall, he said, “when you look at the overall response and how everything came together, it’s pretty remarkable.”


Information from: Wahpeton Daily News,

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