Fire Fighting, Fire Management, and Emergency Management: A Guest Post From Balloon Juice’s Very Own Lurking Fire Chief.

Balloon Juice has its very own lurker fire chief. And he has done a guest post for us on fire fighting and emergency management. Specifically in regard to oil train fires. His post below is adapted from a paper he is presenting this week at a professional conference and he should be around in the comments to answer any on topic questions you might have. Without further ado, I give you Fire Chief Jim Appleton.

I was the fire chief in the 2016 oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Oregon.

I’ve been a Balloon Juice lurker and sparse commenter for over fifteen years, whenever The Poorman sent a bunch of us here to laugh at John.  FSM, I miss The Poorman.  And Ken.

I’ll be speaking in Chicago on Thursday and Friday later this week on a couple of panels about oil trains.  Links below.  Any big-shouldered BJers interested are encouraged to attend and/or spread the word.  Please meet and greet!  My schedule is not conducive for a separate meet up.

The panel organizer invited me based on a couple of my public statements during the emergency.  My position then and now has been a call for banning oil trains, from the perspective of an emergency manager.

But my understanding of the issues has evolved considerably.

Like many, when I first saw what I was dealing with that hot Friday afternoon, I knew the monster as a “bomb train.”

Having been through the response and a lot of training and contacts, I now say that calling them bomb trains is an effective rallying cry, but it’s wrong for technical reasons and problematic because the term is dangerously and erroneously alarming, and because it misses the real threats, which are toxic release and fire.  The concentration of risk in trains consisting entirely of oil is what makes them so insanely dangerous.

The activists who speak about “blast zones” and explosions are scaring a lot of people who need to know that those potential hazards are not likely to kill them.  And that the real threats are potentially more insidious and more common than most people know.

They justify that focus by pointing to one source — the federally approved hazardous materials response guide which all agencies are required to use.

That guide groups oil fires with other flammable liquids into a one-size-fits-all set of steps to ensure public safety during the first thirty minutes of any incident involving those materials.

The guideline sets a half-mile evacuation distance.  Again, assuming a worst case for a whole class of hazards.  Based on that, a common misconception of a half-mile “blast zone” has become a defining characteristic of oil train activism.

But, as we learned in Mosier, oil trains seldom explode.  When they do, it’s from a high-energy accident in which huge amounts of oil are released.

And even then, oil tanker explosions are not as violent as portrayed.

There is no supersonic shock wave, just a lot of heat and a spectacular mushroom cloud of burning vapor.  The image is terrifying.  And oil tanker explosions have killed people.  But only from heat, not from violent detonation.

In Mosier, we knew in the first hour that there was no risk of explosion.  There just wasn’t enough heat to cause them.

That’s far more typical of oil train accidents.  The exceptions are few and well known — Lac Megantic, Casselton.

Reliable statistics on oil train accidents are hard to come by.

Suffice it to say, there are a lot more than you probably think.  They are not widely known because they tend to be in the middle of nowhere and consequences are seldom newsworthy.

Mosier was exceptional only because it happened in a populated area close to a major media market.

Sooner or later, there will be another oil train accident which will top the news cycle because it harms critical infrastructure, a metropolitan center, or an irreplaceable natural resource.

It’s a matter of time.

And the damage done will not be from violent explosions.

It will be from toxic liquid oil, or fire.

The Mosier incident was a fairy tale as oil train accidents go.  The amount of oil released, less than 50,000 gallons, is near the low end of the scale.  No one was hurt.  Even during the cleanup with all kinds of hazards and heavy equipment, not one person even requested a bandaid.  And there was no property damage, other than in the railroad right of way, and relatively minimal damage to the municipal wastewater treatment plant, which was quickly repaired at the railroad’s expense.

If the next one happens, say, on the Burlington Northern line along the Flathead River by Glacier National Park, crews could take days just to reach the site because of terrain and lack of roads.  During that time, pristine river and wilderness would be left alone with whatever the accident spawns.

Same goes for one which burns up part of downtown Spokane or Seattle.

Call them “very incredibly toxic napalm trains,” I’m OK.

Finally, the regulatory logjam and Trumpist dick-swinging which has actually rolled back oil train safety measures as well as obstructing cheap, common sense enhancements is one of, sadly, many priorities which are likely to be secondary to more important changes requiring expensive political effort in coming years.  And that assumes Trump goes, one way or another.



46 replies
  1. 1
    gbbalto says:

    Chief – thanks for the post. Commentary may be sparse because (i think) most of us are not that well informed.

    Are pipelines actually the better way to go?

    ETA: What needs to be done to make oil trains safer?

  2. 2
    MagdaInBlack says:

    That was an interesting and welcome change of subject. Thank you !
    Chicago weather is beautiful this week. Enjoy your visit. ☺

  3. 3
    Mary G says:

    Thanks for this. Every time Republicans cheer getting rid of regulations that harm the poor megacorporations, I see stuff like this.

  4. 4
    sdhays says:

    @gbbalto: That was my question as well.

  5. 5
    Martin says:

    @gbbalto: Solar panels are better.

  6. 6
    gbbalto says:

    @Martin: Concur, but we are stuck with bulk oil transportation for now!
    (As in I have to drive to work tomorrow)

  7. 7
    RAVEN says:

    Rachel would love to have you on her show!

  8. 8
    Aziz, light! says:

    Here in Portland this event went down the memory hole, eclipsed the following summer by the big Columbia Gorge Fire. We are accustomed to long freight trains rumbling along both sides of our two river corridors and don’t give them any thought. At work in the federal building I’m on the emergency response team, and we have gamed out what single event (besides the megathrust earthquake that will destroy the city) might keep us trapped inside the building for days. That event would the derailment of a toxic chemical tanker train as it passes right through the downtown core. Jim, do these fall within your purview?

  9. 9
    Sab says:

    Weird timing. Freight train whistling by up the hill just as I am reading this. just as I am reading this.

  10. 10
    Jim Appleton says:


    I’m not an expert on these questions.

    My hunch is that rail is simply more expedient.

    But the big picture, including comments to me directly from Union Pacific CEO Lance Fritz, is that oil by rail is soon to dwindle and disappear. I’ll believe that when I see it.

  11. 11
    Martin says:

    @gbbalto: The challenge that a pipeline presents, if offering it up as an alternative, is that it’s a major capital expense that, if funded, will come under all kinds of pressure to be profitable over a long period of time. That both influences policy, it carries an opportunity cost given that the capital could be used elsewhere.

    The presence of oil trains is, in some ways a positive sign because it suggests that financiers are not willing to dump billions into pipelines because they don’t expect they will be long-term profitable where the capex for trains can be recovered by other use of those rails. You can’t really use an oil pipeline for anything else.

    That’s why I say solar. If you put your capex there instead, you actually make headway against oil dominance, even if that means oil trains in the meantime. If you put it in pipelines, you only prolong it.

  12. 12
    worn says:

    Damn, finished up work, decided to take a quick look at BJ, and upon seeing the photo, was like ‘Hey wait, that’s Moiser!‘, which was confimed by a glance at the text of the post (after the second it took me to realize Adam wasn’t claiming to be the fire chief).

    I know several folks who own property up in the hills above the town; the derailment was of great concern to them. Chief Appleton, I am very happy that the damage from this accident was quite constrained, but I do share your worries about potential ones coming that might be much worse.

  13. 13
    Miss Bianca says:

    Very cool. Just because of where I live (central CO), will always be interested in fire management.

  14. 14
    mrmoshpotato says:


    Chicago weather is beautiful this week. Enjoy your visit. ☺

    And now Friday’s forecast rain is going to be a blizzard. Thanks for the jinx. :)

  15. 15
    Miss Bianca says:

    Very cool. Just because of where I live (central CO), will always be interested in fire management.

    ETA: can see the Decker Fire flames from my upper window. Looking a little like Mt. Doom.

  16. 16
    Just Chuck says:

    The bomb trains wouldn’t be so dangerous if we just raked the area around the tracks.

  17. 17
    Fair Economist says:

    Thanks for a very informative piece on the real – and imaginary – risks of oil train accidents. Sorry you had to deal with one, but looks like you were a great one to do it.

  18. 18
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Sab: You know what you did…//

  19. 19
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @Miss Bianca:

  20. 20
    MomSense says:

    I remember when Lac Megantic happened. It was so horrifying. Thank you for posting. We take regulations for granted until they are gone and bad things happen.

  21. 21
    Jim Appleton says:



    I’m not an expert on much of anything, but I can say that the economics of oil extraction and transport point to hard times for both pipeline and rail.

  22. 22
    NotMax says:

    Sidebar, strictly for entertainment purposes.

    Ed Wynn named honorary Fire Chief of the Chicago Century of Progress Fair. Stick with it and look at the size of that horse!


    She’d spend the first twenty minutes summarizing the entire history of railroading.

  23. 23


    Are pipelines actually the better way to go?

    Not really, cause they can break. I’ve got a crude oil pipeline that runs near here, a few years ago, there was the smell of oil in the air, thought they might be doing some repaving or something, but it was at 2 in the morning. Turns out a valve on the pipeline burst and covered the adjacent strip club in oil.

  24. 24
    Adam L Silverman says:

    @NotMax: Or firehats.

  25. 25
    MagdaInBlack says:

    Youre right, sorry. 😐 I was thinking the same, but it was too late to edit.

  26. 26
    Jim Appleton says:


    Thanks, and I probably know your friends.

  27. 27
    pat says:

    I’ve always thought that a break in an oil pipeline could release many more gallons of oil than one or two tank cars breaking up in an accident.

  28. 28
    Jay says:

    Keep in mind, Lac Megantic wasn’t an “oil train”. The train wascarrying dilbit, a mix of Tar Sands oil, petcoke and “proprietary” solvents to turn something the consistency of hot asphalt, into almost a liquid.

    “Oil Trains” are a misnomer. There’s not a lot of light, sweet crude left in North America, so a lot of these trains are carrying thicker, dirtier oil products cut with unknown solvents.

    Toxicity will vary.

    One thing we do know, from the Kalamazoo leak is that Tarsands dilbit sinks to riverbottoms, contaminates the riverbed, oozes toxins for months or years, and has to be dredged out along with the riverbed, destroying fish habitat and spawning grounds for decades.

  29. 29
    joel hanes says:

    FSM, I miss The Poor Man Institute

    So say we all.
    Here’s a picture of Ken, as a memento of the golden age of blogging.

    And I miss Sadly, No!
    And Bitch PhD
    And Fafblog, whose penultimate blog post becomes more prescient and trenchant with every passing day.

  30. 30
    Kent says:

    Thanks for this post.

    I live on the other side of the river in Camas and we see oil trains rumbling by on our side of the river too. Not sure where they are going. They blocked the massive proposed oil terminal in Vancouver. Maybe bound for Cherry Point in Anacortes?

  31. 31
    ET says:

    As a DC resident, I hope DCFD is listening because CSX brings those trains in close and they just expanded the tunnels that run from SW through SE near a bunch of office buildings, next to 395, and quite a few houses. Not to mention a few House buildings.

  32. 32
    scav says:

    This one’s a bit weedy, sorry. So these one-size fits all evacuation and blast zones, has there been any effort into making them more localized and realistic? I mean, ok, a blast (so long as it occurred when the cars are still more or less on the rails) might go equally in both directions, but any liquid, once escaped, is probably going to go, well, downhill and and possibly even at different speeds based on slope and possibly accumulate in terraine pockets, so it seems possible to identify where that liquid and associated risk is likely going. Long time ago I knew people working on modeling airborn dispersal models as well as evacuation models for fire depts, so I was just wondering what was going on in these circumstances.

  33. 33
    Jim Appleton says:


    I was instrumental in stopping the Tessoro terminal in Vancouver.

    My testimony to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) was later cited as one of the key elements in the decision to deny permits.

  34. 34
    Jim Appleton says:


    The good news is that the railroads now treat these incidents as public emergencies, not just railroad problems.

    They spend a lot of money and resources to minimize the follow-on effects you point to.

    They’re still Satan incarnate, but they’ve figured out that they need to be do a bare minimum of acceptable things.


  35. 35
    Jim Appleton says:

    @joel hanes:

    I weep.

    Thank you.

  36. 36
    Jim Appleton says:

    @Jim Appleton:

    Also, Jesus’s General.


    Then wrestle.

  37. 37
    Jim Appleton says:

    @joel hanes:

    Brother, we need to meet.

  38. 38
    Ascap_scab says:

    There are a few things I’d like to address that didn’t get covered here.

    Casselton involved Bakken Shale crude oil shipped from North Dakota. This is called a light sweet crude, but has a much higher concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and is much more like gasoline than standard crude oil as it comes out of the ground, thus more explosive.

    One change as a result of these disasters is that the VOCs must now be vented and flared before being loaded into tank cars for shipment.

    Another change resulting from these disasters is that the rail cars transporting crude oil have been upgraded. The Casselton and Lac Megantic trains used DOT-111 class rail cars. These cars were made with 7/16 inch shells, were not insulated, had only partial head shields (end caps to prevent punctures from couplers during derailments), and had exposed loading valves.

    The new standard is DOT-117 made of 9/16 inch steel, are insulated with an outer steel jacket, have full head shields, and protected loading valves.

    So yes, sometimes we learn from our mistakes.

    I’m much more worried about the move to building giant LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) terminals and the push for bulk LNG rail transport.

  39. 39
    MoCA Ace says:


    Turns out a valve on the pipeline burst and covered the adjacent strip club in oil

    oh the horror?

  40. 40
    Booger says:

    @ET: Were you around for the pine oil train incident in the tunnel adjacent to Capitol Hill?

  41. 41
    J R in WV says:


    We take regulations for granted until they are gone and bad things happen.

    This is a great post. Thanks for the insights.

    Momsense, I don’t think we should even call them regulations. WE should call them protective rules. Let the “regulations” word exist and be used technically, but when we talk about them, we need to call them protections, because that’s the purpose, to protect us from short-sighted techniques or policies, or terrible stuff in our food.

    Plus the fascists have made REGULATIONS a thing of evil towards personal freedom, freedom to be dangerous, really, but they don’t mention that.

    It is called the Environmental Protection Agency, after all. Although they don’t actually do much of that right now…

  42. 42
    J R in WV says:

    Also, what a compelling example of the wide range of expertise available here on B-J. A competent fire chief with experience in near-disaster train wrecks. I’m far from an expert, but I did spend two weeks at the Charleston SC) Navy Yard in firefighter school, learning how to be a contributing member of a damage control team.

    I also put out a fire in our old farmhouse utility room, with the smallest and third extinguisher I tried to use, because I didn’t panic (yet, that came after the fire was out!) and used the little extinguisher just as if it was a big one.

    But I do know enough to know I know nearly nothing when it comes to real fire and catastrophe. And LNG containers really are bombs!

    And where else are the big deep water ports? That’s why there are cities there, to serve the deep water ports.

  43. 43
    Mart says:

    Surprised no/few boiling liquid expanding vapor tank explosions. Assume too much sludge in oil to generate the heat. Do you need large quantities of foam to fight these fires? Realize the thread is dead.

  44. 44
    Jim Appleton says:


    Oil doesn’t BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion).

    Propane does BLEVE, because it is transported in pressurized liquid form. If the container fails, the liquid instantly expands to gas vapor at atmospheric pressure, then detonates with a very high-energy supersonic shock wave which can be very destructive even at great distance.

    Oil is transported at atmospheric pressure. What explodes in a failure of a tanker is a small quantity of stored vapor, and vapor created by hot oil igniting. The shock wave is subsonic. The threat from this type of explosion is from heat. In a train fire, this doesn’t extend much beyond the thermal hazard of the main fire.

    The physics of how a liquid-filled oil tanker fails is similar to a BLEVE, but not identical.

    It goes by another acronym — sudden heat-induced tear, or SHIT. No, I’m not kidding.

    In the Mosier derailment fire, we used two million gallons of water to cool the hot tankers (four of them were affected by the fire).

    When they were no longer hot enough to vaporize the water, less than ten gallons of diluted foam concentrate extinguished the small pool fire.

    My comments to high-level planners focus on this. There is a huge emphasis on large quantities of foam in oil response. In our case, I could have supplied what was actually used, and had enough left over for several more train fires.

    What I didn’t have was two million gallons of water.

    We quickly assembled forty water trucks to shuttle river water, sustained for yen hours continuously.

  45. 45
    Jim Appleton says:


    The Mosier oil train carried Bakken crude, bound for export as I understand, though I’ve heard otherwise as well.

    It even looks like gasoline, though the smell of crude oil is unmistakable. And I learned that the human nose is far better at detecting crude oil than a lot of very expensive sensors.

    The cars were all CPC-1232 spec.

  46. 46
    Jim Appleton says:

    @Aziz, light!:

    Yes, municipal fire agencies are all-hazard, and chemical release is just one form of hazmat, which is in our wheelhouse. That said, the role of a municipal would be scene safety (isolate and deny entry), while technicians do the dirty work.


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