Fire companies from Willsboro, Westport, Moriah, Port Henry, Essex, Lewis and Elizabethtown gathered recently for training in controlling an ethanol fire.
Don Jaquish of Essex Co Emergency Services
On another side of the ethanol front is how to extinguish it when it burns.
There is a concern from fire departments, hazmat teams, and local officials on ethanol transports going through our area almost daily. Railroad traffic in our area has increased due to shipments of ethanol from Canada to Albany. Numerous unit trains are running up and down the shoreline of Lake Champlain daily. A unit train is one that is made up entirely of one type of rail car carrying usually one type of product. In our case, it’s a unit train with 100 cars, each holding about 29,000 gallons of ethanol, or 2.9 million gallons of ethanol per train.
Almost pure ethanol before it makes it to the fuel depots for remixing is 98 percent ethanol and 2 percent gasoline. This is a polar solvent, meaning it mixes with water. A prime example is a scotch and water cocktail served with ice, enjoyed on the back porch occasionally. Hydrocarbons separate from water and float. Alcohol mixes with water and that is a serious problem when trying to extinguish an ethanol fire. Fire departments will have a very hard time supplying enough water to dilute the ethanol volume involved in a train accident to reduce its flammability. A small leak is possible to dilute, but a car load is the problem.
To extinguish an ethanol fire, you need to blanket the fire with AR-AFFF foam, which stands for Alcohol Resistant-Aqueous Film Forming Foam. Alcohol resistant foam doesn’t break up in a foam blanket like regular foam. The bubbles in regular foam blankets will slowly dissolve and allow vapors to escape which could possibly reignite. And that is not cool when you are standing near a pool of ethanol!
Alcohol resistant foam is about $38 per gallon and a large fire could easily use more than 1,000 gallons, so the cost of extinguishing an ethanol fire may be out of reach for many fire departments and county hazmat teams. The other solution and possible outcome is to let it burn in place and protect the perimeter and surroundings. In the words of Dirty Harry: “A man must know his limitations.”
Rich Redman is a retired District Conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and an avid outdoorsman. His column will appear regularly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.