First responders say refinery fire response a success, reflect on lessons learned
As black smoke billowed for miles from the asphalt fire at the Husky Energy refinery in Superior last year, forcing thousands to evacuate, Scott Gordon, a battalion chief for the Superior Fire Department, offered a firm warning during an afternoon news conference: the fire could burn for days.
Hours later at the 7 p.m. news conference, only light smoke rose from the refinery. Gordon declared the fire out.
Extinguishing the April 26, 2018 refinery fire within hours of ignition wouldn't have been possible without prior training and cooperation between the Superior Fire Department, Husky Emergency Response Team and all other responding agencies, Superior Fire Chief Steven Panger said.
"They really need to train together to be able to do that. That's not just something you kind of throw people together for," Panger said. "That fire could have been burning for a couple of days, and to go in there and find an opening to make an offensive attack on that fire and be able to put that out — that was pretty amazing."
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, the federal agency investigating the refinery explosion and fire, highlighted the firefighting response in an October emergency response safety message and held it up as an example of a proper response to an industrial blaze.
On Friday, the one-year anniversary of the Husky Energy refinery fire in Superior, firefighters from several agencies that responded to the fire were gathered at Lake Superior College's Emergency Response Training Center in Duluth to continue that training.
Crews from Superior, Duluth, Husky and the Wisconsin National Guard were testing equipment that could be set up around an industrial fire to detect what chemicals were in the air and "to meter and identify what the extent of that plume would be," said Capt. Cameron Vollbrecht of the Superior Fire Department.
Multi-agency training, Vollbrecht added, helps ensure crews are familiar with each other and the equipment they use.
"It worked really well for us last year," Vollbrecht said of training ahead of the Husky fire.
Superior Police Chief Nicholas Alexander, whose department helped create a perimeter around the refinery and facilitate evacuations, said his agency views the Husky fire day as a success.
"A little pat on the back is also deserving for the people that were involved. This was a significant incident, which we did mitigate within a relatively short period of time, and did so without any loss of life," Alexander said. "So although some things could have been done better, I think it was still overall a very positive response."
Emergency agencies that responded to the Husky fire participated in a daylong after-action review meeting in May to discuss what went well and what could have improved.
About a half hour after the secondary asphalt fire ignited, evacuation orders were made over concerns that the fire could cause a hydrogen fluoride release onsite.
The order called for an evacuation 10 miles south of the refinery and 3 miles to the east and west of the refinery — a 6-mile by 10-mile box. In all other directions, orders called for an evacuation zone of a 1-mile radius around the refinery.
But the description was confusing, and public officials and agencies posted varying orders across social media.
Many thought the evacuation orders called for three miles in all directions and 10 miles to the south rather than the official 1 mile radius. That larger radius would have included much more of Superior than the official orders, meaning people evacuated even though they didn't need to.
The report concluded that in the future, only one designated public information officer should issue clearer evacuation zones.
For Alexander, two key takeaways from the Husky fire were ensuring there were back-up school evacuation plans and improved communication between agencies from different states.
Alexander said that since several schools in the Superior School District are near the refinery, he recommended early that schools evacuate that day, even before the general evacuation orders were made.
But two previously identified rallying points for the school — the Mariner Retail & Business Center and University of Wisconsin-Superior — were almost the same distance from the refinery as the schools.
Students were instead bussed to the Amsoil facility near the base of the Richard I. Bong Memorial Bridge where they could be picked up by their families.
Alexander said that location worked out as a back-up location, in part because his brother, Amsoil Chief Operating Officer Dean Alexander, and other Amsoil staff members were willing to drop what they were doing and help connect families with their students.
"One thing that stems from that was the need to not become dependent or rely on only one plan for evacuations, to have some contingency plans and other locations to be able to use," Alexander said. "You never know where the next possible big incident can happen."
Alexander said the Husky fire also highlighted challenges between Wisconsin and Minnesota agencies using different, incompatible communication technologies.
"Although there have been attempts at patching our frequencies and using software and hardware in the past, it didn't work that day. ... But we definitely will, in the near future, have interoperability between the two states. That would allow it to be more efficient."
Still, police officers and sheriff's deputies from both states were in Superior helping carry out evacuation orders, and the agencies found ways to work around the radio communication gaps.
Each house in the evacuation zone was visited by authorities twice, Alexander said.
Panger said that for the Superior Fire Department, it became clear the department needed more metering equipment — the chemical- and weather-detection devices the agencies trained with Friday — earlier in the fire instead of having to wait for the Environmental Protection Agency's equipment.
Panger also said that borrowing the Superior Police Department's drone was crucial, as the aerial photos it provided during the fire helped map out an opening in the blaze where crews could move. Now, the fire department is training several of its firefighters to fly a recently purchased drone that holds an infrared camera.
With the Husky fire now a year in the past, both Panger and Alexander said their agencies are looking back on the Husky fire as a success.
"I definitely know our department will be in a better position to do it more efficiently and effectively in the future," Alexander said. "I think the takeaways are positive."