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Cooperation douses fire quickly at Calumet

Superior Police block Stinson Avenue at Hill Avenue as fire burns an empty asphalt tank Tuesday afternoon at Calumet. (Jed Carlson/jcarlson@superiortelegram.com)

When a fire broke out Tuesday in an asphalt storage tank at the Calumet oil refinery in Superior, the facility’s emergency response team had the large stockpile of chemical agent needed to douse the flames — but no way to safely access the top of the 30-foot-high structure.

The Superior Fire Department had the ladders needed to reach the top of the tank, but not the expensive, specialized chemical agent called Purple-K.

Thanks to extensive training together, firefighters and Calumet employees were able to pool their resources quickly and seamlessly to extinguish the fire.

"Our firefighters, their team members at the refinery — they work together on a monthly basis," Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Scott Gordon said. "Our management staff and the upper management at the refinery — we work together on a regular basis."

Gordon described the public-private partnership as "revolutionary" compared to some other communities with refineries across the nation, and he said it’s an advantage to Superior residents and ensures the best possible response should there be an emergency at the refinery.

And it doesn’t stop there: Each year Calumet and two other companies that handle petroleum products in Superior — Enbridge and Plains Midstream — provide money for the Superior Fire Department to send four firefighters to Texas for advanced training in handling petroleum-related fires.

"It’s a win-win for both sides," Calumet refinery manager Kollin Schade said Wednesday. "We certainly appreciate when they can come in here and help the response ... And on the same side, if they are called upon to come in, we want them comfortable knowing what our abilities are internally and what we’re expecting from them. We train together and obviously that training paid off dividends."

Fire response, investigation

Tuesday afternoon’s fire, fed by residual material in the 4,000-barrel tank, sent up a plume of smoke visible for miles.

The explosion that prompted the emergency response was from a buildup of pressure in the tank from the smoldering material inside; it ruptured the top of the tank.

"Luckily for us, the explosion went up," Gordon said. "It split the roof of that tank."

Officials from Calumet’s emergency response team (ERT) and the fire department set up a unified command post to coordinate the best approach to extinguish the fire; the two groups trained together just last week.

"Our strategy was to get on top of the fire, and use Purple-K, which is an agent that they have, and put it out from the top down," Gordon said. "They do not have a ladder system, so they asked if they could use Superior Fire Department’s Engine 2, which does have a ladder. We from the unified command post decided that was a good strategy … so that’s what we did. …

An ERT member and a Superior Fire Department member climbed up and applied that Purple-K agent, which is ultimately what put the fire out."

That Superior firefighter had been sent to the advanced training in Texas just last year; the fires seen in training are similar but larger than Tuesday’s fire, Gordon said.

The fire was doused within two hours; crews remained on the scene to spray water on the tank to cool it down. The fire was contained to the tank and there were no injuries.

"This is rewarding for us, to have a positive outcome" after so much training, Gordon said.

Investigators from Calumet and the Superior Fire Department were at the scene Wednesday in an effort to find out what caused the fire. Officials said they don’t believe the fire was suspicious.

A major disassembly of the tank will take place to begin the process of repairing the vessel and to investigate the interior components, said Superior Fire Battalion Chief Erik Sutton. He said witness interviews have been completed.

News Tribune reporter Lisa Kaczke contributed to this report.

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