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Little has been done from a regulatory standpoint to ensure that the kind of catastrophic disaster that rocked the town of West, Texas, five years ago doesn’t happen again.
That’s the assessment of at least one expert on the fifth anniversary of a fire and explosion at the West Fertilizer plant that killed 15 people and damaged or destroyed hundreds of buildings. Damage was estimated at $250 million.
“The Environmental Protection Agency did amend its process of safety or risk management guidelines that would prevent explosions – [it] required a few more training sessions, and that sort of thing,” Thomas O. McGarity, a professor of administrative and environmental law at the University of Texas, told Texas Public Radio. “Really I think they did improve things somewhat, though they did not address the precise substance, which was ammonium nitrate, that blew up at the plant.”
Storage and protection of ammonium nitrate were key elements of a West, Texas, cover story in the March/April 2014 issue of NFPA Journal. The article detailed how a fire at the plant eventually heated stored (and unsprinklered) ammonium nitrate until it detonated, producing a colossal explosion that was heard 80 miles away and resulting in widespread damage and devastation in a town of fewer than 3,000 people. The article included reportage on the early efforts of Chris Connealy, the Texas state fire marshal, to raise awareness of hazards related to stored ammonium nitrate and to advocate for a state fire code in accordance with NFPA 1, Fire Code.
In response to the West Fertilizer explosion, the 2016 edition of NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code, included expanded requirements for the safe storage of ammonium nitrate. The changes were covered in a May/June 2015 feature article in NFPA Journal.
McGarity pointed out that President Obama issued an executive order following the West incident for agencies to review the conditions that could lead to similar explosions. The EPA responded with regulations that were set to take effect in 2017, but the agency put them on hold for reevaluation. “The Trump administration wants to pull back anything that the Obama administration did and see whether they can do it differently,” McGarity said. “It’s very difficult these days to write new regulations. There are so many impediments to getting a regulation through the process.”
Meanwhile, the nation contains tons of stored ammonium nitrate primed for regulation. In our 2014 story, the EPA estimated that 13,000 facilities similar to West Fertilizer posed threats to communities throughout the U.S.

At 5:12 AM on Wednesday, April 18, 1906 an earthquake with the magnitude of 7.9 hit San Francisco. The earthquake set off dozens of fires. There were “overturned stoves, scattered fuel from furnaces, and short-circuiting of powerful electric currents.” On top of this, “…all three sources of water supply [were devastated] simultaneously.” [i] Around 8:00 AM, an aftershock made things even worse. There were so many damaged to the city’s water system that they were without water to fight fires. In the end, 80% of the damage was due to fire, not tremors during the earthquake.[ii]

 

Photograph from the NFPA Research Library and Archives.[iii]

 

In the midst of mourning Fire Chief Dennis Sullivan—who died early in the morning from injuries caused by the earthquake—those in charge of the city’s emergency response team determined that dynamite was the solution to weakening the dozens of fires spreading throughout the city. Before his death, Chief Sullivan had been in the process of advocating for improved water supplies for fire-response as well as dynamite training for the San Francisco Fire Department. Knowing this, the two people who became leaders in the emergency response and relief team made the decision that only dynamite could create the fire break to contain the fires ravaging the city.


These two people were Brigadier General Frederick Funston, who was appointed to the Department of California by the War Department and immediately assigned himself as military governor of San Francisco within minutes of the earthquake, and a 69-year-old fireman named John Dougherty—who was only named the new Fire Chief due to seniority. In literature that analyzes their actions, it is debated whether their technique helped save the city or hurt it. On top of the dynamite, General Funston managed to acquire complete control over the Army troops he requested to protect the city, which led to the San Francisco Mayor publicly ordering the troops to shoot anyone caught looting on the spot (though there are no records of this ever happening).


In regards to the dynamite, Funston himself stated, “I doubt if anyone will ever know the amount of dynamite and gun cotton used in blowing up buildings, but it must have been tremendous, as there were times when the explosions were so continuous as to resemble a bombardment.” It was said that he was determined to stop the progression of the fire, even if “it meant blowing up the last houses to do so.”[iv] Because many of the troops, police officers, and firemen handling the dynamite were untrained in its use, the effects were not always helpful in stopping the fire. Some critics insist the dynamite fueled the fire instead of creating fire breaks to halt it. However, other researchers praise Funston’s fast-thinking actions for saving the parts of city that were, in the end, untouched by fire.


After three days of this, it was a heavy rain on Saturday morning that eventually extinguished the fires. This was and still is the largest urban fire in U.S. history. Over 3,000 people died, 28,000 buildings and 4.7 square miles were destroyed, 200,000 people were homeless (half of the city’s population), and there was a property loss of $524 million (which today is $13.8 billion).[v]


Referenced Sources:

  • [i] G. H. Marks, “Reminiscences and Lessons of the San Francisco Conflagration 18-21 April, 1906” (speech presented at Birmingham Insurance Institute, Birmingham, UK, 26 February 1909), published in The San Francisco Story…: April 18-21,1906! (Unknown Publication), 4. “San Francisco, California, San Francisco Earthquake, 18 April 1906,” Historic Fires Collection, NFPA Research Library and Archives
  • [ii] Charles Scawthorn, John Eidinger, and Anshel J. Schiff, “The 1906 San Francisco, California Earthquake and Fires,” published in Fire Following Earthquake (Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2005), 11.
  • [iii] “Dynamiting of the Phelan Building,” photograph. “San Francisco, California, San Francisco Earthquake, 18 April 1906,” Historic Fires Collection, NFPA Research Library and Archives.
  • [iv] Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts, The San Francisco Earthquake (New York: Stein and Day, 1971), 135.
  • [v] Scawthorn, et al., “The 1906 San Francisco, California Earthquake and Fires,” 10-11.Trever Hammond, “Major Earthquake Strikes San Francisco: April 18, 1906,” Fishwrap,1 April 2018, https://blog.newspapers.com/major-earthquake-strikes-san-francisco-april-18-1906/.

 

Written by Jenny DeRocher, Simmons College '18 MLIS Candidate.
 
For more information regarding this and other moments in fire history, please feel free to reach out to the NFPA Research Library & Archives.


The NFPA Archives houses all of NFPA's publications, both current and historic.
Library staff are available to answer research questions from members and the general public.

Safety advocates know that fire sprinklers can significantly reduce the risk of death or property loss from a home fire. What might not be as well-known is the data supporting the environmental benefits of this technology in all new homes.


A study conducted by FM Global and the Home Fire Sprinkler Coalition underscored a sprinkler's green qualities. It investigated the types, quantity, and duration of air and water pollutants released from a home fire; the amount of water used by a firefighter's hose and fire sprinklers during a fire; and the environmental impact of burning furnishings and other materials.

 

The report, "The Environmental Impact of Automatic Fire Sprinklers," concluded that:

  • greenhouse gases released by burning buildings can be reduced by 98 percent when automatic fire sprinklers are installed
  • automatic fire sprinklers reduce fire damage by up to 97 percent and reduce water usage to fight a home fire by upwards of 90 percent
  • fire sprinklers reduce the amount of water pollution released into the environment

    Visit NFPA's Fire Sprinkler Initiative site for more information on this study.

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