At 9:40 PM Monday morning a serious fire broke out in the downtown Drake Power Plant, sending plumes of black smoke hundreds of feet in the air above the plant. Observers described flames shooting out of the southeastern part of the Drake complex.
The fire was contained at 11:45 a.m., said Kurt Dennison, spokesman for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.
The power plant was immediately closed and all employees were evacuated. One injured individual was transported to a Colorado Springs hospital.
According to CSU spokesperson Patrice Lehermeier, 22,115 customers were without power for approximately 35 minutes. Power was restored quickly, using other system generating capacity. Lehermeier said that stand-by generating units such as those at the North Nevada gas-fired Birdsall Plant, might be activated as well.
The area surrounding Drake was voluntarily evacuated for a three-block radius until the fire had been contained.
A CSBJ reporter at the scene said that frequent earsplitting bursts of steam shot from the building shortly after the incident, followed by strong smells of natural gas. That smell, according to city councilmember Jan Martin, was a consequence of the plan’s shutdown, and poised no immediate danger.
No details were available about the incident, Lehermeier said. Twitter feeds from the Colorado Springs Fire Department characterized the blaze as a “four-alarm fire, involving all three levels of the building.”
Almost three hours after plumes of smoke erupted from the downtown Drake Power Plant, CSU officials had no official comment. The company’s website was unchanged. Drake was described as it always has been:
“The Martin Drake Power Plant provides nearly one-third of the community’s power year-round.
“While the Martin Drake site has been in operation for more than 80 years, the three units currently in operation – units 5, 6 and 7 – were built in 1962, 1968 and 1974, respectively. The plant has been well maintained over the years to operate efficiently and reliably within regulatory requirements.
“As base load power generation, the Drake units run 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The units have achieved continuous runs exceeding 100 days several times in recent years, which is an industry benchmark of excellence.”
Former councilmember Tim Leigh, who has long believed that CSU should decommission the Drake facility, said, “I’m very grateful that there was no loss of life.”
Councilmember Jill Gaebler, participating in a regional leadership event in Salt Lake City with her colleagues Val Snider and Jan Martin, echoed Leigh’s comment.
“I just hope that no one has been seriously hurt,” she said.
Neither Gaebler nor Councilor Jan Martin would speculate on how this incident might affect the controversial power plant’s future.
CSU Chief Executive Officer Jerry Forte is out of town as well. In his absence, CFO Bill Cherrier is in charge.
Update – Monday evening
At a Monday afternoon press conference, Cherrier put the incident in a broader historical context.
“Our system is very safe and reliable,” he said, “this is the first such incident in Drake’s history.”
Fire Chief Chris Riley described the Fire Department’s quick and massive response.
“We haven’t had a four-alarm fire in a very long time,” he said. “At one time, we had 23 units on the scene, with 88 firefighters and 33 support personnel. We extinguished the main body of the fire in about an hour, there are still isolated smaller fires burning. We had to be aware of hazardous materials, including hydrogen and coal dust.”
Neither Cherrier nor acting Energy Services Director John Romero would speculate of the origin, extent and possible damage from the conflagration.
“We don’t want to put forward any (possibly inaccurate) information we might have to retract,” Cherrier said.
Update – Tuesday morning
More than 24 hours after flame and smoke first erupted from the downtown Drake Power Plant, the plant remains unsafe for entry.
“It will be at least 24 hours before it will be safe for (CSU employees) to enter the facility,” Riley said at a Tuesday morning press conference, citing “smoldering insulation” and “structural integrity.”
“I’m not comfortable sending folks in there,” he said.
Riley praised the quick and courageous response of the city’s firefighters.
“We made the decision to go in there and extinguish the fire,” he said, emphasizing that the decision was not without risk. “It was pretty much like a high-rise fire, fought on several levels. Had they not gone in, there could have been some kind of explosion that could have been catastrophic for the neighborhood.”
Riley also gave a preliminary damage assessment.
“There’s what we can see, and what we can’t see,” he said. “We don’t know what their systems are, so there’s damage that we can’t see. There is significant damage to one of the turbines (generating units) and significant damage to the control deck.”
Such extensive damage may mean that Drake will be unavailable for an extended period of time. That’s not good news, since Drake, with a capacity of 254MW is the city’s base load power plant, and the cheapest to run. If Drake is down during the summer months, CSU will have to either purchase power on the spot market or negotiate long-term purchased power agreements with other providers. In either case, the power will be more expensive than that which Drake could have provided.
In the best-case scenario, the damaged turbine is Drake #5, with a capacity of 51MW. If Units 6 (85MW) and 7 (142MW) can be back online within a month, the loss of #5 can be offset by running the gas-fired North Nevada Birdsall Plant (55MW) during times of peak demand.
Reporter Cameron Moix contributed to this story.