Weary firefighters spent all day at the scene of a smoky fire at an oil storage facility that sent flames shooting into the air south of Council Bluffs. Fire Marshal Jeff Hutcheson says it began sometime around four A.M., and though it was still not under control by midday, he wasn’t saying yet that they’d just let it burn out. He says efforts continue, and “obviously you have to control the fire before you can extinguish the fire,” noting they have to get it under control first, and will wait to see if the decision’s made to let it burn itself out after that.
There were no employees on duty at Stern Oil Company when the fire was spotted, and it’s likely to take some time to determine the cause. Iowa State Fire Marshal’s investigators were already on the scene earlier today, questioning witnesses and employees, and their investigation will go on for days. Hutcheson says it would be “premature” now to make a guess at the cause of the fire.
Despite the clouds of thick smoke and flames that shot high into the air, the Council Bluffs Fire Marshal says Stern Oil is a small company and this is a small “tank farm” storage facility. He says it consists of 17 tanks, ranging from 1100 gallons to 7400 gallons in size, containing motor oil, hydraulic fluid, antifreeze, and some industrial cleaning solutions. He says few people even knew the small tank-farm was even there, as its location is remote. He explains it’s basically a small transfer facility, storing products brought in on trucks, which later went out in other trucks.
Special fire trucks were brought over from the Air Force base across the river in Omaha. Hutcheson says the Offut aircraft crash vehicles have their own foam tanks and can spread a lot of fire-extinguishing foam on a crashed plane, or can be used on a structure fire like the one in Council Bluffs.
The Department of Natural Resources and federal Environmental Protection Agency got involved early in the day, to monitor the sooty smoke rolling from the tank farm and advise people to keep away from it. The northeast wind was blowing the smoke away from most populated areas. They did caution people with asthma or other breathing difficulties to stay indoors for a few hours.
The DNR and EPA will be doing on-site air-quality monitoring, and they’ve diked ditches in the area so runoff from fire hoses won’t carry chemicals from the site into waterways. Hutcheson says for now there’s no major environmental concern.
The owner’s quoted as saying it looks like the fire began at an office in a building on the site, and the loss will be over a million dollars. The alarm was phoned in by a resident of the rural area who reported hearing explosions early this morning.