Sparks from train caused Portland fire near hazardous waste depot

Repost from The Oregonian

Sparks from train caused huge Northwest Portland fire near hazardous waste depot, officials say

By Betsy Hammond, June 29, 2015 at 3:30 PM
Portland Fire & Rescue responded to a three-alarm fire in Northwest Portland, as seen from a bluff on the east side of the Willamette River. This photo was taken at 5:50 p.m. (Photo courtesy of J. Jason Groschopf)

Sparks from a passing freight train caused the huge 30-acre grassland fire along Front Street in industrial Northwest Portland Friday afternoon, fire officials said Saturday.

The blaze, which burned only grass and brush, burned on land adjacent to the Metro Central Transfer Station, which accepts hazardous waste as well as garbage and recycling.

Firefighters warned Metro of the danger that smoke might cause in the area, said Lt. Tommy Schroeder, public information officer for Portland Fire & Rescue.

The fire agency mounted a huge response to the blaze, with more than 70 firefighters and other rescue officials at the scene, Schroeder said. That ensured the Metro hazardous waste depot never posed a serious fire jeopardy, he said.

The site that burned was on the south and east side of the Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railroad track, just after the track crosses the Willamette River, Schroeder said. The fire remained north and west of Northwest Front Avenue.

That land is owned by at least three parties, including the city of Portland, ESCO Corp. and Starlink Logistics, public records indicate.

It is adjacent to Atofina Chemicals, one of the world’s largest chemical companies, which has since been renamed Arkema. The company suspended operations at its Portland plant in 2001.

No one was injured and no structures burned, Schroeder said.

Fire investigators determined the fire started in multiple locations all the same short distance from the railroad tracks, he said. Witnesses also told investigators that they saw the fire start next to the tracks, said Lt. Rich Tyler, another Portland Fire & Rescue spokesman. Those two factors led them to conclude that sparks from the train started the fire.

But Gus Melonas, a spokesman for BNSF in British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, said that workers on the BNSF train that passed through the area saw fire burning in the field far from the tracks and moving toward the track. He said the railroad is continuing to look into what happened.

Tyler said it is unlikely an individual started the fire in the middle of the field because fences and blackberry bushes made it difficult to access.

Schroeder said sparks from passing trains normally cause at least one fire in Portland every year.

Note: An earlier version of this article said, incorrectly, that the land that burned is owned by Atofina Chemicals. That global chemical company in fact owns the adjacent property, between Front Street and the Willamette.