Colorado Springs Fire Chief Chris Riley did not mince words in describing what could have been.
Riley, recapping the fire department’s quick and massive response to the serious fire Monday at Martin Drake Power Plant, praised what he called the quick and courageous response of firefighters on the scene. The plant, which was shut down immediately, might not be able to reopen for an indefinite period, officials said at a news conference Wednesday.
“We haven’t had a four-alarm fire in a very long time,” Riley 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.
“We made the decision to go in there and extinguish the fire,” he continued, 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.”
Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte acknowledged the response’s impact.
“The thought that comes to my mind more than anything else is gratefulness,” Forte said. “The evacuation was seamless — I think it saved lives.”
At 9:40 a.m. Monday, the fire broke out at the downtown plant, sending plumes of black smoke hundreds of feet in the air. Observers described flames shooting out of the southeastern part of the Drake complex. Following prescribed fire evacuation plans, all 62 employees on-site left the building immediately.
City firefighters arrived five minutes after the alarm first sounded. They found, according to a preliminary post-incident report released to the media Wednesday morning, “a large body of fire and a large volume of smoke coming from the building. Firefighters immediately began an aggressive interior fire attack and quickly knocked down the main body of the flame. The fire was declared under control at 12:42 p.m.”
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 standby generating units such as those at the North Nevada Avenue gas-fired Birdsall Plant might be activated as well.
As of Wednesday morning the building remained under the control of the Fire Department. Riley said that the investigation would continue for weeks to come, but that CSU personnel will take control of the facility Thursday or Friday to assess the damage.
Forte said that the majority of Drake employees were placed on paid administrative leave Tuesday and Wednesday before reporting Thursday morning for temporary relocation to other job sites.
CSFD believes that the fire was caused by “…free flowing lubricating oil coming in contact with high temperature steam pipes which resulted in a flash fire. The fire was fed by the free flowing lubricating oil which increased the fire’s size and severity until fire department crews arrived and were able to suppress the fire. The investigation will be ongoing and may take several weeks to determine all the factors surrounding the cause of the fire.”
Chief 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 254 megawatts, 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.
“Anything that we would replace it with in the long-term would cost more money,” Forte said. “We’re going to have a lot of make/buy decisions until we get to a point that we have the power plant restored.”
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 short time, the loss of #5 can be offset by running the gas-fired North Nevada Birdsall Plant (55MW) during times of peak demand.
Forte expressed hope that units 6 and 7 could soon be operational, but cautioned that the extent of damage to the facility is as yet unknown.
Reviewing the incident, Forte also praised the fire department’s quick and decisive response.
“They helped save this treasure behind me that has served this community for 90 years,” he said, speaking to reporters gathered outside the plant on Wednesday morning.
CSU managers have made no secret of their affection for the downtown facility. On Monday afternoon, Utilities CFO Bill 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.”
Former City Council member 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.
One contractor was taken to a hospital for minor injuries and later was released.
Neither Gaebler nor Councilor Jan Martin would speculate on how this incident might affect the controversial power plant’s future.
And while this was the first such incident in the plant’s long history, it might not be the last. Asked whether he was aware of any similar fires at other power plants, Forte gave a blunt response.
“This is an incredibly well-maintained plant, with regular, aggressive inspections,” he said, “(but) it’s an industrial facility, and there are all kinds of hazards associated with any industrial site.”
CSBJ reporter Cameron Moix contributed to this story.