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The recent fire at the site of Trinity Health’s new hospital complex in southwest Minot is a perfect example of the Minot Fire Department’s extensive ongoing responsibilities after a fire is extinguished.
In this incident, personnel from the Minot FD remained on the scene for roughly 48 hours after the initial call.
“Two trucks and eight of our personnel were on scene all night to make sure the site was secure and to be there in case another explosion happened. We monitored the scene all night long. It was almost 48 hours until the last tank stopped burning,” said Battalion Chief Mason Maxwell, who was in charge of the scene of the fire, which began on the evening of March 22. “On Saturday at 8:30 a.m., we reduced our presence to two people on fire watch. But we stayed on the scene until 7:30 p.m. Sunday, then we secured and locked the work area.”
That’s not unusual, said Minot Fire Chief Kelli Kronschnabel, noting that the department’s responsibility doesn’t end when the flames are gone.
“We have a responsibility to secure the property. When we left the Trinity site, we used our own locks because the property is actually ours until we turn it back over to the owner,” Kronschnabel said. “Before we turn the property back to the owner, we inform them if there are any hazards on the site, like if there’s water in the basement, or there’s no electricity.”
Maxwell, a 22-year veteran of the Minot Fire Department, said his department is responsible for making a wide variety of decisions, both during and after an emergency situation. And as a Battalion Chief, many of those decisions are his to make.
Safety is always the primary concern. Always.
“The first thing we think about is the safety for everyone, including all responders,” Maxwell said. “In this recent case, we knew we had a large propane leak. When we arrived, we could see we had a vapor cloud. We spoke to someone from the construction company, and we knew Ferrellgas was in route.”
Maxwell said members of his crew immediately began searching for the source of the propane leak, while others monitored the air quality in the area. Because the Fire Department didn’t have details of how the 24 1,000-pound propane tanks were connected or set up, Maxwell made the decision to wait for the gas company to arrive on scene.
“Once the vapor cloud flashed, then we had sustained burning directly back to the tanks,” he said. “We decided to have Engine 1 and Ladder 2 back up to 37th Avenue and I made the decision to start evacuating the structures directly to the west of the site.”
Because of the layout of the work site, the location of the tanks and the amount of mud and water on the scene, Maxwell said it would have been impossible to use hoses to safely and effectively cool the remaining propane tanks.
“After the explosions were done, some tanks still had sustained burning until 11:20 p.m.,” Maxwell said. “We made the determination to let residents back into their homes about 10 p.m. because the scene was secure and the fire had begun to burn itself out.”
The decision to allow residents back into their homes wasn’t an easy one to make.
“I thought about that for a long time. That decision weighed heavily on my mind that night and the next day,” Kronschnabel said. “Safety is always our top priority. It’s a lot of responsibility, but we rely on our training to help us make those decisions.”
The department’s investigation into the fire began the next day. Minot Fire Marshal Dean Lenertz began his investigation, with assistance from the State Fire Marshal and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Kronschnabel said the ATF was called because of its expertise in explosions.
“We document everything we see and everything we did on the scene,” Kronschnabel said. “We want to have extra sets of eyes on the investigation, so that’s why we included the State Fire Marshal and the ATF.”
Maxwell considers the Fire Department’s response to the incident a success.
“From my standpoint, this couldn’t have turned out better from a life safety aspect,” Maxwell said. “Everybody went home. Residents were displaced temporarily, but they all went home, and all of us from Minot Fire Department went home.”
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