A cleaner, renewable fuel source being transported across the country for use in automobiles may be a disaster waiting to happen, fire officials said.
With the push toward environmentally friendly fuels gaining momentum, fire departments around the country are finding themselves short of training and materials to fight ethanol-fueled blazes, which can burn hotter and require special firefighting foam to extinguish.
A number of automakers have begun equipping their vehicles with engines capable of burning fuel made with 85 percent ethanol, or E85, and at least 35 stations in Texas carry the fuel.
Though E85 isn’t yet available in the Brazos Valley, that doesn’t mean the region is insulated from its dangers, said Robert Moore, an associate director of the College Station-based Emergency Services Training Institute.
The fuel has been transported through the area by rail and tanker trucks for years, Moore said, and with its popularity increasing, the chances of an accident involving E85 are also increasing.
But many fire departments may be caught unprepared.
“The biggest problem our fire departments would face if we had a large ethanol accident,” Moore said, “is having enough of the right kind of firefighting foam to extinguish the blaze.”
Ethanol fires cannot be suppressed with water, and the type of foam that fire departments have carried for years to fight gasoline fires isn’t as effective against the alcohol-based product, Moore said.
An alcohol-resistant form of the foam “costs about 30 percent more than the standard [foam], at around $90 to $115 for a five-gallon container,” according to David White, president and publisher of Industrial Fire World.
That expense can be a burden to many smaller fire departments, Moore said.
Because not all departments can afford the new foam, battling an ethanol-based fire may come down to cooperation, Moore said.
Bryan Fire Chief Mike Donoho and College Station Fire Chief R.B. Alley said their departments have the alcohol-resistant mixture. Even so, they said, a large fire would require help from each other, Texas A&M University and the Texas Engineering Extension Service Fire Academy.
“We have the foam on hand, but if a tractor-trailer accident occurs, there could be 8,000 gallons of ethanol burning at the scene, and rail cars carry even more than that. This would be more than any individual department could handle,” Alley said.
“If large quantities of the foam are needed, it will be a regional project,” he said.
And even if they had enough of the right type of foam to battle an ethanol fire, Moore said, many department aren’t trained to use it.
Moore said that’s a problem that his agency is working to fix.
Along with the TEEX-run Brayton Fire Training Field, which trains more then 80,000 emergency responders a year, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, Moore said, the Emergency Services Training Institute is working to provide training on ethanol-fueled fires and share information with fire departments across the nation.
“Right now, we just need to ensure that all fire departments are capable and trained in how to properly apply the foam.”
With the proper training, materials and cooperation among departments, Moore said, fire officials should be able to keep large ethanol fires from turning into catastrophes.