Proximity to gas plant increased Oil Springs fire danger

RBC | Thanks to much needed rain, the hard work of local fire protection crews, more than 300 federal firefighting personnel, and a bit of luck, the 12-thousand-plus acre Oil Springs Fire south of Rangely has calmed down considerably. But things didn’t look quite so positive last week, as exceptional drought conditions and heavy winds fueled extreme fire behavior that forced emergency evacuations, power shut offs, road closures, and threatened a large natural gas processing facility.

It’s business as usual at Colorado Northwestern Community College campus in Rangely Colorado, at least, as far as the day to day operations like landscaping go. As for everything else happening at the campus, well, it’s not exactly what a prospective student might expect if they were to show up for a visit.

The parking spaces are mostly filled with government vehicles, and the surrounding areas host trailers for food, sanitation, supplies and showers. At the base of the dorms, hundreds of tents cover the grass — temporary shelters for many of the more than 400 federal firefighting personnel called to the west end of Rio Blanco County to fight the Oil Springs Fire, about 15 to 20 miles south of Rangely.

“Usually fire season, the bigger ones don’t usually start until after the Fourth of July, so here we are on number three,” said Rio Blanco County Sheriff Anthony Mazzola. He explained that the ongoing fire, (mitigated by some recent and much-needed precipitation events), is the third in the county this year, though the first two were quickly snuffed out by local fire protection crews. “This is an exceptional year,” he added.

Unlike the first two fires in RBC this year, the Oil Springs Fire has posed a far more dangerous threat. Originally sparked by lightning on June 18, the fire burned a few hundred acres of dry vegetation in two days, but remained manageable at a local level. Then, the wind picked up. “The fire literally blew up,” said Mazzola. “It went from several hundred acres, to I think almost 5,000 acres,” that was on Sunday, June 20.

“One of the local BLM firefighters who’s been doing this for a long time said he hasn’t seen fire do this, this was crazy,” said Mazzola.

The wind that drove the first rapid expansion of the Oil Springs fire also lit a spot fire 6 miles ahead of the direction it was pushing to the east, prompting emergency evacuations, power shutoffs, and the closure of Highway 139.

Rio Blanco County Emergency and Natural Resources manager Eddie Smercina, who assisted with firefighting efforts that night, describes being caught in the middle of thick smoke. “As that smoke came in and nailed you, you couldn’t see or breathe, and you’d just try to walk blind to your vehicle to get out of it.”

Mazzola noted how much of a factor the smoke played in prompting the highway closure. “You couldn’t even see your vehicle 15-20 feet away because the smoke was so bad,” he said, adding, “You can just imagine if we had not shut the highway down and we had the public coming through, now we’re gonna be dealing with crashes.”

The east-moving expansion of the fire Sunday night also motivated first responders to call in federal help. “That’s when the decision was made, we need to get a team in here and get some help, because this is beyond our local capabilities,” Mazzola said.

On Monday, June 21, Great Basin Incident Management Team 3 started arriving and officially took control of the fire on Tuesday, June 20.

But the Oil Springs fire was ready to flare up again, this time with a new set of challenges. That night it blew up again, driven by wind to the north, moving more than five miles and burning another 5,000 acres in just a few hours. The flames also pushed directly toward one large and potentially very explosive target, the Dragon Trail natural gas plant owned and operated by Utah Gas Corp.

The gas plant, which processes tens of millions of cubic feet of natural gas per day before it gets shipped out by pipeline, quickly became the main focus of fire suppression efforts as the flames moved toward it.

“The absolute worst case scenario, they hit the buttons to do an emergency shut down, and leave, and the fire comes to the plant and there’s still product inside the plant that has potential for igniting,” said Mazzola. Fortunately, that worst case scenario did not happen, and the plant is no longer threatened by a rapidly moving wildfire.

Utah Gas Corp. Operations Manager Ronnie Plummer says preparing for events like these is an annual mitigation effort, which primarily involves keeping infrastructure like well pads and compressor stations free of vegetation that could increase the chance of ignition.

“We have everything sprayed inside our fence, we do everything possible because we know this country could catch fire any time,” said Plummer. “That’s why you see very few of the locations actually catch fire. It’s a constant mitigation with the compressor stations, if you’ve ever been by them they’re cleared completely on the insides, and a little bit outside the fence,” he said.

Plummer also told the HT the threat of fire is always on the minds of operators, noting how the nature of oil and gas extraction activities can be helpful for fighting wildfires, for example, oil field workers are often the first to spot and call in new fire activity, since they work in remote locations. Additionally, oil and gas extraction logistics can sometimes put operators in a good position to assist with firefighting efforts as needed, including on the Oil Springs fire.

“Our guys helped set up the sprinkler system, we as Utah Gas hauled in four different tanks, 1,800 barrels of water we hauled out there the first day for them to use, to make it quicker for them to make round trips.”

RBC Sheriff Anthony Mazzola estimated that the fire came within about one mile of the gas plant, which he says processes around 30 million cubic feet of compressed gas a day. He explained how the threat to the plant increased the priority level for federal resources to be allocated, despite those resources being spread thin due to other large fires in the region.

Mother Nature, despite her initial wrath, also offered cooling temperatures and rain to northwestern Colorado earlier this week, tempering the fire and allowing crews to double containment from 30% on Tuesday, June 28, to nearly 60% on Wednesday.

But, with rain comes lightning, and the potential for new fires to crop up.

Sheriff Mazzola says he’s optimistic about the state of the Oil Springs Fire, despite the chaos last week, though he adds that he won’t be planning any personal trips out of Rio Blanco County until the fire season is over, which, if drought conditions persist, will be with us well beyond the summer of 2021.