Firefighters will sometimes stand back and let an oil train fire burn itself out

[Editor: The question arose here in Benicia whether emergency personnel sometimes choose to stand back after an oil train derailment and explosion and let a fire burn itself out.  Many reports show that this is in fact the case when there is a huge explosion following a Bakken oil train wreck.  – RS]

Casselton, North Dakota
Casselton, North Dakota

From the White Plains NY Journal News
WASHINGTON – Crude oil and ethanol fires caused by derailed freight trains are left to burn out on their own because first responders can’t extinguish them, fire safety officials told the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday….“They are no-brainers,” Greg Noll of the National Fire Protection Association said during the second day of a two-day forum on safety issues linked to rail transport of crude oil and ethanol. “There is very little we as first responders are going to do.”….Even multiple fire departments located near the site of a railroad tanker fire don’t have enough foam to extinguish such blazes, which can spread from car to car.

From (
“The rapid growth is going to be beyond anything we can contain,” said Bergenfield Fire Chief Jason Lanzilotti, who held a response drill to an oil train derailment over the summer. “Evacuation is a major problem. Fire suppression is out of the question. There has to be some kind of framework so that not every town is individually looking at what needs to be done.” … Tiedemann talked about different methods firefighters may take in dealing with an oil train fire. He said it may be more dangerous to try to put a fire out immediately since the oil could flow away from the wreckage and reignite elsewhere.

From the Bellingham Herald:
When faced with an event like a derailment, first responders have to decide whether to fight or surround the problem, depending on available resources and the size and intensity of any fire or spill, said Roger Christensen, Bellingham’s interim emergency manager and recently retired fire chief….“If you’re faced with an event you can’t do anything about, you have to decide how to protect what’s around it,” Christensen said….  “Even with a lot of foam you may not be able to put that fire out,” Brady told those at the White Salmon meeting. […quoting Patrick Brady, BNSF director of Hazardous Materials Special Operations].

From NRDC Switchboard, Diane Bailey’s Blog  (
How can emergency responders deal with crude oil rail accidents?  A panel concluded that the best tactic is to let a derailment burn, pull back, and take a “defensive posture”.  Emergency responders were clear that the ongoing crude oil rail disasters are beyond their capabilities to handle.  “Even with an infinite amount of costly foam”, letting them burn is the only sensible approach (and this is what was done in Lynchburg this afternoon).  They note that major derailments would require enormous amounts of foam, there is not enough water to apply it especially in rural areas, and anyway, they cannot get close enough to the fires to apply it.  Derailments in urban areas would pose significant operating risks that go well beyond current operational capabilities for emergency responders.  [source was Rail Safety Consultant Fred Millar’s notes from the April 2014 rail safety forum in DC]

On the Casselton, ND fire – from The Associated Press (
[About Casselton, ND] Investigators couldn’t get close to the blaze…and official estimates of how many train cars caught fire varied….The cars were still burning as darkness fell, and authorities said they would be allowed to burn out.

Also on the Casselton fire:
Cass County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tara Morris…estimates about 10 cars from a mile-long train caught fire and will have to burn out. She said it could take up to 12 hours before authorities can get close.

On the Lynchburg, VA fire – from Reuters (
JoAnn Martin, the city’s director of communications, said three or four tank cars were leaking, and burning oil was spilling into the river, which runs to Chesapeake Bay. She said firefighters were trying to contain the spill and would probably let the fire burn itself out.

Also on the Lynchburg fire – from The Huffington Post (
Lynchburg officials evacuated some buildings and let the fire burn out…Richard Edinger, assistant fire chief in the Richmond suburb of Chesterfield County, said no fire department except those at some refineries has sufficient equipment and materials to deal with exploding oil-filled tank cars.

On the Lac-Mégantic fire – from In These Times (
Canadian safety investigators found American shippers in North Dakota’s Bakken region had understated the volatility of the oil that ignited and destroyed much of Lac Mégantic’s downtown area. Improper classification caused the shipment to be transported in an improper package. Emergency responders, too, were caught by surprise at how quickly the fire spread and how long it burned.

Note that in Lac-Mégantic, the fire burned for the better part of two days.  See the NTSB report (  Also Wikipedia ( and The Globe and Mail (

On RURAL accidents (let’s not forget about all of our uprail communities along UP’s tracks), this from Maine’s (
The first people on scene at a rural oil incident will be declining numbers of volunteer firefighters who are hours from the highly-trained response teams and special kind of equipment, materials and gear needed to handle oil fires. Of 59 communities along rail lines, five have no fire department and 27 rely on solely volunteers.