EVERETT — Each oil tanker car that passes through Snohomish County carries about 33,000 gallons. Multiply that by 100 to 110 cars per train.
Often, it’s Bakken crude oil, which is easier to refine but far more volatile. The Pacific Northwest now is averaging 2.5 loaded oil trains per day, most headed toward refineries in Skagit and Whatcom counties. Local firefighters have been talking about how they can be prepared if one turns into a fireball.
The message from experts is that, most likely, local firefighters won’t be able to extinguish the flames.
Instead, their focus will be evacuating the area and keeping the fire from spreading into buildings, said Brad Reading, an assistant chief at Snohomish County Fire District 1. In his district, the railroad tracks run through downtown Edmonds and along steep waterfront bluffs toward Everett.
“I think everyone in Snohomish County feels we have to get more educated,” he said.
Leaders from District 1 recently spent time learning about the history of oil and its components, including Bakken crude, “a commodity that’s going to be here for a long, long time,” Assistant Chief Bob Eastman said.
More trainings are planned throughout the region. The Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management sent two folks to a state conference this spring, deputy director Jason Biermann said. They also have been talking with the local hazardous materials team about getting together to look at maps and go over scenarios.
Experts on the marine environment will play a role in those discussions, because of the potential for a spill in Puget Sound. Also, the need for community notifications and warning systems — including automated phone calls — has come up at the county level and for the city of Everett.
Earlier this summer District 1 hosted an oil train-related drill with the Everett Fire Department and Edmonds police, Reading said. The minimum evacuation zone for an oil fire is 1,000 feet in every direction from the incident. Toxic fumes are a concern.
For a major oil fire, state and federal teams likely would take over after the initial response. Local firefighters still are working on their plans, Reading said.
“This is, for the big picture, pretty new stuff,” he said.
The railroad lines from Seattle to Everett and Canada and the lines from Everett east toward Spokane are owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe. In Washington in recent years, BNSF has trained more than 2,000 firefighters, police officers and emergency management folks on oil-related incidents, spokesman Gus Melonas said.
BNSF also has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on rail safety upgrades and has its own specialty incident teams and contractors on call if something happens. That’s in addition to regional stockpiles of booms, foam and skimmers, Melonas said.
The shared training includes the Everett Fire Department, which over the past year has sent seven people to a three-day BNSF class in Pueblo, Colorado, said Ric Cade, an acting assistant chief. They practiced with actual oil cars that had been lit on fire, he said.
The Marysville Fire District has sent one firefighter to Pueblo, Chief Martin McFalls said. Sixteen more have applied. Later this year, they plan to have BNSF visit and bring an actual oil car for crews to look over.
At least once a day, Marysville fire rigs responding to calls are delayed by trains, McFalls said. They alert the dispatch center and keep a record of those delays.
“The increase just in rail travel since 2007 has been tremendous and it’s anticipated to get much, much worse in the next three to 10 years,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city of Marysville plans a drill next year based on a train derailment, officials said. That exercise will simulate a chlorine gas spill and involve police, firefighters and various city departments.
About a year ago the state asked firefighters if they had enough personnel and equipment for a major oil fire, Gold Bar Fire Chief Eric Andrews said.
His answer: “No, we don’t.”
Crews along the U.S. 2 corridor are being told to expect more empty tankers passing by, Andrews said. Even cars labeled as empty can carry a few thousand gallons, prompting concerns, he said.
In the state survey, Andrews suggested creating a stockpile of firefighting foam in east county. However, a oil fire could easily block the highway — and access to the stockpile, depending on their respective locations.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com.