Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

January 3, 2013

Salvage operation may have started fire at former coke plant

Tim Preston
The Independent

ASHLAND — A fire at the former AK Steel Coke Plant  Monday afternoon may have been started by workers who were removing covers from the units as part of ongoing demolition operations, according to Ashland Fire Chief Scott Penick.

The chief said firefighters had challenges at the industrial scene, including disconnected hydrants, although the blaze was contained and no injuries resulted.

“We decided there was no action we could take to extinguish the fire within the tank,” Penick said Wednesday afternoon, explaining fire officials used techniques designed to reduce emissions and keep the fire from spreading. With no active hydrants at the idled coke plant, Penick said firefighters from Westwood and England Hill played a crucial role by hauling water to the scene.

The fire was contained within a pair of tanks Penick said essentially served to remove certain compounds from vapors produced when the plant was in operation. “... like a big filter, the way it was explained to me.” The units contained plastics as part of the filtration material, as well as wood, which burned with two distinct colors, Penick said, making the plume highly distinctive to those watching.

“The plastic burns black, just like a burning tire, and the wood burns with more of a brown color,” he said, noting the white vapors coming from the tanks were likely steam from the water used to keep the fire contained.

The chief also confirmed smoke from the fire displayed a “puffing” behavior. “It was drafting like a chimney. It would almost like breathe,” he said, noting the effect is not an unusual sight for experienced firefighters.

Penick also confirmed reports of at least one “boom” sound from the fire. “While we were there it did blow the top off one of them,” he said, adding the improved access may have made it easier for responders to fight the fire.

Firefighters kept hose lines in place while the fire burned, and have revisited the site several times in the days after to assure federal officials there is no further immediate fire danger. As burning materials fell from the bottom of the tanks, Penick said firefighters were waiting to drown the debris.

“We believe it’s almost down to ambient temperature now,” Penick said, crediting coordinated efforts of the firefighters and fire departments involved.

TIM PRESTON can be reached at tpreston@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2651.