Cement smothers Prineville zirconium fire

Shovel sparks fierce fire; firm learned from previous blaze

POSTED: 12:20 PM PST November 27, 2012    UPDATED: 7:35 AM PST November 28, 2012 
PRINEVILLE, Ore. -

A spark from a shovel ignited a fierce fire in a pit of flammable zirconium in an industrial area west of Prineville late Tuesday morning, officials said. The blaze sent up a tall smoke plume for hours, prompting authorities to keep students in doors and urge that anyone with respiratory problems do so as well, and report any symptoms to 911.

Matt Smith, chief of Crook County Fire and Rescue, said the fire was reported around 11:20 a.m. at EnviroTech Services, a business at the Prineville Freight Depot about three miles west of town. The 2-year-old facility makes road de-icer and dust control products, according to a 2010 article on its Website.

A hazardous materials team from SMAF Environmental was called in and began pouring dry cement onto the fire to smother it.

The smoke was called an "irritant" and not a significant health threat, though officials were advising people with breathing problems to stay indoors as a precaution.

Fire Marshal Casey Kump later said a spark from a shovel or scoop on a machine (not a hand shovel) ignited the pile of metal filings, sparking the fire and smoke that "drew a great deal of concern in town," but had begun to dissipate by late afternoon.

Kump said the fire department worked in close coordination with Crook County Emergency Management Director Dave Dethman, as well as the sheriff's office, health department, Pioneer Memorial Hospital and area schools, which kept students indoors.

No evacuations were enacted, he said, and no injuries reported.

The company makes de-icer, and "zirconium is a byproduct of their process," Smith said. "Zirconium, when it's dried in a form of metal filings, is highly flammable. If a spark or something is near it, it can catch fire."

The material is located in a "not incredibly deep" containment pit, the fire chief said, adding that "everything worked as it should have," in terms of isolating the fire in the pit and preventing more problems.

"We have had, in the last year, one other fire regarding zirconium, and we have had a fire involving an excavator," Smith said.

Fire officials say the company learned from a similar fire a year ago. After that incident, a pit was dug to hold the metal shavings of zirconium.

"The containment pit worked as it was supposed to, and the fire was contained to that," Smith said.

An Oregon OSHA official said they agency had not inspected the facility but will be looking into what happened, though a representative did not classify it as a formal investigation.

Smoke from the fire drifted toward Prineville, and an inversion also was in place Tuesday, so Smith said "what is wood smoke, what is this smoke and what's fog is hard to say."

Kump said, "If residents in the area feel that the smoke is causing medical or respiratory problems, they should call 911."