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News / Clark County News

UPDATE: Car fire proves tough to fight

Flaming magnesium prevents use of water

By John Branton
Published: August 5, 2010, 12:00am

After several hours of work at the scene where a 1973 Porsche with flammable magnesium parts was burning at a busy intersection, crews about 3:45 p.m. Thursday towed the cooled-down car carcass away.

And officials said they had dealt with any environmental problems and no one was reported injured.

The fire was reported about 11:20 a.m. Thursday at Southeast 192nd Avenue and 34th Street in far-east Vancouver.

The driver escaped from the burning car. He’d been headed north on 192nd, planning to make a left turn to go westbound on 34th. The car sputtered and died. He restarted it. It died again. Then he noticed the fire.

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He told firefighters he’d just filled the gas tank and the vintage auto had a magnesium engine block, transmission and other parts.

When hit with water, magnesium fires burn even hotter and more intensely, and can create an environmental hazard. In fact, magnesium is useful as a fire-starter.

The burning magnesium flared up in a shower of sparks when firefighters tried to use a little water, confirming what it was, said Jim Flaherty, firefighter-spokesman with the Vancouver Fire Department.

“You absolutely know when you hit it with a hose line,” Flaherty said. “There’s no mistaking what it is.”

A hazardous-materials, or HAZMAT, team leader, went to the scene to advise firefighters.

Firefighters tried using dry-chem extinguishers, but they didn’t help either.

There are exotic retardants that can be used to extinguish such fires, but local fire departments don’t stock them in quantity, Flaherty said.

Magnesium is less commonly used for such car parts these days than in the 1970s, said Flaherty, a veteran firefighter.

The most recent magnesium car fire Flaherty could recall was about 15 years ago, in a garage, he said.

As Vancouver and Camas firefighters decided to just let the car burn until they could use sand on it, public works crews and officials with the state Department of Ecology swung into action.

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Two stormwater drains were nearby and there was concern the water might be contaminated by oil and gas leaking from the burning car, and possibly other debris or the magnesium itself.

As a result, public-works crews used a large vacuum truck called a “vactor” to clear out the stormwater line, said Loretta Callahan, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Public Works Department.

Officials learned that only a small amount of gasoline and oil had entered the line at the street drains, and that was removed.

“There is no impact to water quality expected,” Callahan said late Thursday afternoon.

Another concern was that the flaming magnesium, which melted, dripped down and solidified on the pavement, could be a hazard, officials said.

However, once the Porsche was towed, crews were able to use shovels to pick the magnesium up and remove it, Flaherty said.

Dealing with traffic in the busy area also was a problem, and other officials helped with that, Callahan said.

Southbound 192nd Avenue was completely closed from 41st to 34th streets, Flaherty said. Northbound 192nd was down to a single lane.

The bottom line: After the four-hour coordinated effort involving several agencies, no substances contaminated the stormwater system, Callahan said.

“As tedious as it was,” Flaherty said, “everybody knew their disciplines and they were hitting the right marks.”

Crews brought in a flatbed truck with 2 tons of sand, though not nearly that much was needed, Flaherty said.

Firefighters let the car burn for more than an hour and, as of 2:50 p.m., 20 to 30 shovelfuls of sand had extinguished the fire, said Flaherty.

“The fire is out. There’s just a lot of heat being generated; we’re just letting it cool down,” he said.

The Porsche had cooled down enough to be towed away about 3:45 p.m.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.