Members of Columbia County’s Hazardous Materials Response Team trained for nearly a decade to make sure they are prepared for chemical emergencies.
They were tested Tuesday when a tractor trailer full of potentially dangerous chemicals caught fire in a crowded shopping center parking lot.
“We’ve had small incidents, but this is the first time we’ve had to deploy the (entire) team,” Columbia County Fire Rescue Special Operations Batt. Chief Danny Kuhlmann said.
Though the incident is exactly the type of emergency the team trains for, it was the first time in the nearly 10 years the team has existed that it was fully deployed for such a situation.
“We learned a lot,” Kuhlmann said of the team formed through the fire department. “It was a good evaluation for us. We’ll plan to how to handle it better next time.”
A SAIA Ltd. Freight driver saw his tractor smoking and pulled into an empty area of Mullins Crossing shopping center by Ruby Tuesday restaurant in Evans.
Columbia County fire personnel responded and saw the emergency placards on the side of the smoking trailer, said Batt. Chief and Special Operations Officer Danny Kuhlmann said.
Upon checking the driver’s manifests, Kuhlmann said he learned the trailer was loaded with corrosive materials including wood preservatives, solvents and chlorine tablets.
“They handled it beautifully,” Columbia County Emergency and Operations Director Pam Tucker said. “I’m very proud.”
It appears that the load might have shifted and a wood pallet might have fallen onto some chlorine causing it to mix with hydrochloric acid to start the fire.
The team evacuated the parking lot and nearby businesses as a precaution in case the toxic smoke blew in the direction of the stores and shoppers.
“The situation was really, really awkward because it was in a parking lot and we had to worry about evacuations and all that,” Kuhlmann said.
The team and firefighters worked with county Roads and Bridges and Water Utility personnel to create sand dykes around the truck to contain any contaminated water when firefighters sprayed water on the blaze inside the trailer.
“We had a bunch of agencies that worked really, really well together,” Kuhlmann said.
More than three hours after the fire started, firefighters in protective HazMats suits braved the heavy smoke and opened the rolling door of the trailer.
They and other firefighters extinguished the blaze. The water was contained and the freight company hired a private contractor to clean up the mess.
Kuhlmann and Tucker agree that the experience was great training for similar events, which could have gotten much worse.
“All of the practice and training and everything truly paid off yesterday,” Tucker said Wednesday. “This was very small to the type of significant event we could have occur in the county due to a transportation accident. So it was very good training as well.”
Tucker, who assisted forming the team in 2005, said hazardous materials response is expensive and requires lots of training, equipment and materials.
She helps by obtaining tens of thousands of dollars in grant funds to support the team, which couldn’t be paid for through the fire department budget.
The team will be training for a chemical spill in water on April 18 off the Riverside Park dock in Betty’s Branch in order to get grant funds to purchase reusable booms to soak up contaminated water, Tucker said.
“We’ve got 17 miles of interstate that go through our county with chemicals every day,” Tucker said.
“The risk is high. Knowing that they are there now, it is like total peace of mind.”