Barrels pose a danger

These pictures were taken by the crew of Piedmont Engine 3-2 were working on the July Complex fires in Northern California this last summer. While doing structure protection, we came across these two barrels. After a thorough investigation, we found them to be completely empty of the motor oil they once contained. Since they were empty and far away from any buildings, we decided that they would not be a threat to the structures and decided to leave them as we found them.

     Approximately five hours later the fire front hit. As we were picking up spot fires around the structures, we heard (and felt) a loud explosion. When you hear a loud explosion like that in the heat of things and you are in an area of the United States historically known for its mining (and explosives), all kinds of things race through your mind. 

     It wasn’t until the next day when we returned to patrol the area that we discovered the cause of the explosion. This may seem like a simple deduction looking at the pictures.  The fact of the matter is, that those presumably “empty” barrels still must have contained a very small amount of residual oil inside them. Since the barrels were still tightly sealed by their bung plugs, the heat of the fire front caused the oil to expand and put great pressure on the inside of the barrel eventually causing it to explode. 

     What is the lesson learned here? It kind of seems like a no-brainer looking back.  The material in the presumed “empty” barrel was subjected to extreme heat causing it to vaporize and expand. The resulting pressure ultimately caused the tightly sealed container to burst. Once the now vaporized super heated residual oil was exposed to oxygen, it ignited resulting in a fairly impressive fireball. 

     In retrospect, the best thing we could have done since we presumed the barrels to be empty and not containing any sort of hazardous materials, would have been to remove one of bung plugs prior to the fire front. By doing so, we could have prevented any pressure build up inside the container. Any residual oil left inside the barrel would have just burned off and not exploded.  Thankfully no one was in the immediate vicinity of the barrel when it exploded.  Granted, this may not be the perfect solution to every situation involving containers and an impending fire front, but it is an option to consider and definitely something to think about.

Roy Kottwitz, Captain

Piedmont Fire Department

Blaze Publications, Inc.

Jeff Gargano - Editor
P.O. Box 122
Humboldt, IA 50548

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