WEST FARGO — Andrew Nill hasn’t thought much about living two blocks away from a large fuel terminal with more than a dozen storage tanks, even after one of those tanks caught fire a year ago and sent a vast plume of hazardous smoke into the sky for several hours.
In fact, the mobile home resident who's lived there for nearly four years said he almost forgot the fire happened at the Magellan Pipeline Terminal along Main Avenue in West Fargo, adding that he doesn’t remember much from that Sunday on Feb. 18, 2018.
“We probably woke up a little late that day,” he said. “I looked outside and saw smoke, and it looked hazy.”
But if you ask Chief Dan Fuller, he'll tell you the Magellan blaze was a major event for the West Fargo Fire Department, not something soon to be forgotten.
“In recent memory, in the last 10 years, this is the biggest thing that has happened,” Fuller said.
Many were asleep when the fire ignited outside a 43,000-barrel tank that held 30,000 barrels of fuel at the time. Firefighters arrived at the scene at 5:26 a.m.
The West Fargo Fire Department has 18 full-time firefighters, with the remaining crew either part-time or on call, Fuller said. Full-time staff did not begin their shifts until 7 a.m., and the firefighters who were designated to respond were on call.
Still, crews responded to the blaze within seven minutes of the alarm sounding, records show.
An after-action report, detailing what emergency crews did right and what improvements could be made, noted numerous areas in which the department excelled, including teamwork with other agencies.
It also noted areas for improvement, including using other methods of communication to alert residents and changing the type of foam the department uses to fight fires.
Not all residents received phone alerts through the CodeRED emergency notification system, and the alcohol foam system was not compatible with the flames, Fuller said. Other agencies brought foam that would put out the fire.
Emergency crews didn’t issue an evacuation order but told residents to stay inside and not breathe in the hazardous smoke.
Fuller said he wasn’t concerned the fire would threaten residents. The fuel tank was built so it would not collapse, he said. Even if it did, the surrounding dike is meant to act as a barrier, said Bruce Heine, a Magellan spokesman.
Tank pump failure
Magellan does not have its own firefighters and relies on local emergency crews in the event of a blaze, Heine said.
Magellan put firefighters in contact with Texas fire consultants who offered advice on extinguishing the fire. Once the fire department knew what it was up against and started its attack, it put out the blaze in about 40 minutes, according to incident reports.
Firefighters extinguished the fire by 12:40 p.m. and cleared the area by 2:35 p.m. The facility was shut down for almost 36 hours, and no injuries were reported — not from the fire or the smoke.
Magellan investigators determined a component in the tank’s pump failed, spilled 638 barrels of diesel fuel and ignited a fire that burned for more than seven hours. The pump was installed in 2003, when Magellan Midstream Partners purchased the facility, though the tank had been in service since 1964.
The white tank that turned partially black from the blaze was dismantled and removed, Heine said. It has not been replaced.
Fuller attributed the success in battling the fire to the training the department attended the month before the blaze. Numerous pipeline companies, including Magellan, were at the pipeline safety training, which made communicating with the company and determining how to handle the blaze easier, the chief said.
“Everyone goes and they think, ‘We are never going to see it happen in our lifetime,’” he said of training for incidents like pipeline fires.
During the fire fight, the Grand Forks Unmanned Aerial System Team provided assistance by remotely monitoring the tank from above, according to the after-action report. Emergency crews in the Fargo area have also formed a drone team that includes two West Fargo firefighters and one drone for the group, Fuller said.
Two people have been injured at Magellan’s West Fargo facility since the company acquired it from Willbros Group, previously known as the Williams Brothers Co. The injuries were minor, Heine said.
However, at least one person has died at the facility. Clifford Steeves, 51, succumbed to burn injuries in September 1975 after an explosion from a vapor leak into the engine room, according to Forum archives. Willbros did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Though Magellan Pipeline Co., a subsidiary of Magellan Midstream Partners, has incurred 42 enforcement actions from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, none have been against the West Fargo facility, according to a Forum analysis of PHMSA records. The most recent enforcement action was in March 2017.
PHMSA did write a report on the Feb. 18, 2018, incident, but it did not launch its own investigation since Magellan found that one by the federal agency was unnecessary because “control room personnel did not contribute to or cause the event,” according to the report.
In discussing the fire, Heine pointed to Magellan’s webpage on safety, which says the company’s “commitment to safety is fundamental to Magellan’s business strategy and our success.” Similarly, Chief Fuller said the West Fargo facility has safety features engineered into it and does not pose a threat to the community.
Like other nearby residents who spoke with The Forum, Nill said he felt safe living near the site, both before and after the fire. Though, he wondered if the smoke would be harmful to members of his household.
“I was never really concerned that the thing was going to blow up and take out the whole (neighborhood),” he said.