Railroad Inferno

On March 15, a 300′ stretch of railroad trestle elevated above the American River caught fire in a remote area near Sacramento, Calif., sending smoke up to 1,500 feet in the air and creating a plume visible to some Bay Area residents. The line was used by both Amtrak and Union Pacific trains and was considered a major rail artery leading into the state’s capital.

The fire was reported at 1741 hrs. “The [smoke] column was huge,” says Sacramento Fire Department (SFD) Battalion Chief Gary Henslee, the first chief on the scene and the incident commander. “When you get a column rising that fast and that big and dark, you immediately think it’s some kind of fuel on fire. I thought we had a tanker or a plane down.”

Although the trestle timbers themselves require high heat and a significant amount of time to burn, the creosote used as a
preservative on the trestles burned extremely rapidly, creating a torch-like effect. “When the timbers heat up, they almost flash,” Henslee says. “Within 15 minutes, I saw [the fire] move 250-300 feet. It was like a high rise fire on its side, spreading in both directions.”

Complicating matters was the remote location of the incident, which occurred in American River Parkway area where there are no fire hydrants. “Basically we had a wildland setting with a structural fire, and we were unable to get complete structural assignments to the scene because of access issues,” Henslee says. Command created two divisions, north and south. Working with Union Pacific (UP) trestle and bridge engineers, they determined the priority was saving the steel bridge. “The north division took care of the trestle fire, the south took care of [protecting] the bridge,” Henslee says. “On the west side of the bridge, [we set up] water tenders and a drafting operation in a pond. On the east side of the bridge, we stretched about 1,000 feet of 5″ hose.” In addition, the SFD used two fireboats equipped with master streams to ensure fire did not destroy the bridge. “The fireboats saved [the bridge], which saved UP about $7-10 million in additional damage,” Henslee says.

Commanders were also faced with competing environmental concerns. “On the second day, we had just about every environmental agency on scene you could think of-EPA, Fish & Game, etc.,” Henslee says. “It was a very sensitive issue because on the one hand, they’re saying you shouldn’t hit it with too much water and certainly not foam, because of the runoff [into the river], but [on the other hand] they’re saying don’t just let it burn because we’re going to have creosote in the air.” The fire also threatened a protected wildlife habitat.

Approximately 125 firefighters from the Sacramento area fought the blaze. One firefighter suffered a minor head injury and was transported to a local hospital. The blaze stranded 130 passengers on an Amtrak train in Roseville, north of Sacramento, for about 5 hours.

Cleanup operations are expected to cost between $20-30 million. The cause of the fire is still under investigation but fire department officials view it as suspicious because of how fast the blaze spread.

“This was a ‘career fire’-very unique,” Henslee says. “Yet it never ceases to amaze me how firefighters just dig in and do what they have to do, regardless of what they face. Every one of the officers and the firefighters on that fire did a tremendous job.”

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