The fiery train derailment on the Tehachapi Loop last month required several agencies to share resources in a coordinated effort to clean up the wreckage, evacuate residents, repair the tracks and get delayed trains rolling again.
Consider this: BNSF Railway owns the train that derailed; Union Pacific Railroad owns the tracks; and the Kern County Fire Department has to put out the fire. Add to the mix Kern County Environmental Health personnel, Sheriff's Department deputies, California Highway Patrol officers, railway crews, contractors and others. And they all had to work together to get the job done.
Deputy Fire Chief Brian Marshall said the fire department received a call the evening of Saturday, Feb. 20 about a train derailment, explosion and fire.
"It wasn't your typical call," Marshall said.
Complicating matters was the derailment happened by a tunnel and there was no easy access to water, Marshall said. He said fire crews didn't know if there was fire throughout the length of the 500-foot tunnel.
The first priority was to care for anyone injured. A rancher was treated for smoke inhalation, but other than that no one was hurt, Marshall said.
Fire officials were given the train manifest and saw the tanker involved in the fire was carrying denatured alcohol, which is ethyl alcohol with an additive such as acetone or methanol, according to dictionary.com. The fire created a toxic cloud that required an evacuation of residents within a one-mile radius.
Deputies assisted firefighters in spreading the evacuation warning, Sheriff's spokesman Michael Whorf said. A shelter was set up at Tehachapi High School for residents who left their homes.
Brian Pitts of the Kern County Environmental Health Department said they provided technical reference to the other agencies and were prepared to put on chemical suits and deal with hazardous materials, but that didn't prove necessary. The biggest environmental issue in the derailment proved to be the smoke and fumes, he said.
"In this case, the circumstances allowed a lot of the materials to be contained," Pitts said.
A helicopter launched from Keene surveyed the area, Marshall said. With the difficulties the area presented, a decision was made to let the fire burn overnight and fire crews would tackle it in the morning.
The alcohol tank car burned itself out overnight, but two other cars, one containing corn meal and the other polystyrene plastic pellets, caught fire, Marshall said. The tank car with alcohol was on the Tehachapi side of the tunnel, but the two tank cars that were now on fire were on the Keene side of the tunnel.
"The theory is that the alcohol was burning downhill and it set the other cars on fire," Marshall said.
The fire was producing a thick column of smoke and the evacuation radius was expanded to two miles.
Trucks carrying water arrived at the site and both Kern County and railroad fire crews fought the blaze with water and foam, Marshall said. Tractors created a berm that caught the runoff so it wouldn't contaminate the surrounding area.
An excavator tore open the tanker cars that were on fire so firefighters could douse their insides, Marshall said. The fires were out by 4 p.m. Feb. 21, which meant fire crews had reached their goal of extinguishing the blaze in the cars before nightfall.
What remained was the fire on the tracks inside the tunnel, Marshall said. A tunnel specialist was brought in and fire crews extinguished the fire and by the morning of Monday, Feb. 22, the fire department's work was done. A couple of firefighters remained at the scene on standby.
In all, about 40 Kern County firefighters participated at one point or another over the course of the incident.
Once the fire was out Union Pacific assessed the damage to the tunnel and the track and began repairs, Union Pacific spokesman Aaron Hunt said. Throughout the process, the workers met every hour or so to discuss progress and their next steps and to get consensus among the different agencies on how to proceed.
Hunt said the track was heavily damaged. Railroad ties were burned away, leaving only the rails and other metal. Crews replaced all the rail, the ties and ballast, he said.
Damage to the tunnel wasn't as bad, Hunt said. The integrity of the tunnel as a whole was tested, and where there was minor damage they had to make sure there no debris would fall off walls or the ceiling.
Lena Kent, spokeswoman for BNSF, said BNSF was responsible for removing the wreckage from the area and that process was ongoing. They also brought in environmental contractors and industrial firefighters to help.
Kent said 44 BNSF trains were held up until the tracks reopened.
Union Pacific trains were rerouted along coastal tracks through the Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo areas, Hunt said. At least a couple dozen trains used that detour.
About eight trains were parked for 24 hours because they were already underway on the same line when the BNSF train derailed. A number of customers had 24-hour delays on deliveries or shipments, Hunt said.
The track was reopened in the early morning of Tuesday, Feb. 23.