A small fire in a single 2-by-6 board at an explosives plant forced the evacuation of several hundred people Wednesday.
The fire at the Rimrock Explosives plant started just two feet from a large mixing vat of explosives, said Hayden Lake Fire Chief Wayne Syth.
But three hours later, the fire had fizzled out, and residents were allowed back in their homes in time for dinner.
Emergency officials feared the blaze could cause an explosion with 75 times the force of the blast that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building in April. The closest home is a quarter of a mile from the explosives plant.
Although the fire scorched only a few feet of wood, emergency officials said the extreme precautionary measures were appropriate.
“If it’s going to blow, it literally would have devastated everything within a half a mile,” Syth said. “We did the only thing we could do for the safety of the people around here.”
The fire started about 12:45 p.m. in a building filled with 275,000 pounds of explosive materials, said Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
Workers at Rimrock mix various materials to make explosives in what is called the ammonium nitrate/fuel oil mixing building. The finished explosives are stored in several surrounding bunkers, Wolfinger said.
An employee in the manufacturing building noticed the flames and smoke.
“He immediately did what he was supposed to do, which is run like crazy and warn everybody,” Syth said.
Ralph Kramer was the first firefighter on the scene.
“Basically, they told me it was the same mixture (of explosives) as Oklahoma,” he said. “When I heard that, it got my interest.”
The fire district has undergone training at the Rimrock plant. Following lessons he had learned there, Kramer did not attempt to put out the blaze. Instead, he helped evacuate employees at Rimrock and at Louisiana-Pacific Corp. across the street.
The explosive danger was so high that firefighters retreated after evacuating employees.
Materials like those kept in the building will burn without exploding unless they are compacted, Wolfinger said.
However, emergency officials were not sure how far the fire had spread. They worried that a collapse of the building’s roof could cause an explosion capable of flattening everything within a half mile.
Rimrock officials warned Kootenai County sheriff’s officials to evacuate everyone within a mile of the plant.
Sheriff’s deputies swarmed through surrounding neighborhoods, telling residents to leave their homes. An estimated 1,000 people live and work in the evacuation area.
Idaho State Police closed U.S. Highway 95 from state Highway 53 to Wyoming Avenue.
Two runways at Coeur d’Alene Airport were shut down, and some air traffic was rerouted. Federal Aviation Administration officials restricted airspace in a 1-mile radius above the explosives plant up to 7,400 feet above sea level.
Later in the afternoon, Ron Baldwin, president of Rimrock Explosives, flew over the site, looking for signs of fire.
Spotting no flames or smoke, he and a crew of employees went to the plant, searched outside the building and then went inside, Wolfinger said. They found the smoldering board and removed it.
The wood caught fire after it had slipped out of place and began rubbing against a turning pulley, Syth said. The flames were about two feet from a large hopper that explosive materials are mixed in, he said.
Residents were allowed back in their homes about 4 p.m. as emergency workers heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“It could have been the big one,” Kramer said. “It had the potential.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo; Map of fire area
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S INSIDE? Here is a list of materials found Wednesday in Rimrock Explosives Inc. building in Hayden, according to Kootenai County Sheriff’s officials: 180,000 pounds of raw Prill, an ammonium nitrate fertilizer. 65,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer oil. 10,000 pounds of the explosive Tovan. 20,000 pounds of Tovan Super 80. 7,000 gallons of odorless oil that is usually mixed with Prill. 700 gallons of diesel fuel.
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