Firefighters train for ethanol blaze in Modesto

naustin@modbee.comJuly 13, 2013 

    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin

— Firefighters got a crash course in battling ethanol blazes Friday and Saturday, thanks to the industry that makes the fuel and the railroads that move it.

The Renewable Fuels Association held the one-day training sessions under a Federal Railroad Administration grant, as part of a series being put on across California. The local training was at the Modesto Junior College Fire Training Center.

Sponsor Modesto & Empire Traction Co., the short-line hauler for the Beard Industrial District, doesn't haul ethanol, said spokesman Ron Jackson, but backed the training as a way to support local fire agencies.

Capt. Robert Berbera, one of four Modesto Regional Fire Authority officers attending the training, said ethanol "is a growing industry we need to be aware of. It's a different animal."

Modesto would provide backup in case of any emergency at the Aemetis Inc. ethanol production facility in Keyes. Aemetis acquired the 55 million-gallon-per-year plant with its purchase of Cilion Inc. in 2012, according to a company news release.

Ethanol, in its purest form, burns with almost no smoke and no smell, and when widely spread on the ground the flames can be nearly invisible, said session trainer Glen Rudner.

It takes an indirect application of tens of thousands of gallons of a special foam to smother the flames, which can quickly eat through non-alcohol resistant foams and reignite, he explained. Modesto rigs carry 20 gallons, firefighters said.

Another problem is unburned fuel. Spilled fuel can soak into the ground, endangering groundwater and adjacent soil, Rudner said.

He advised each department to focus on planning, making contingency arrangements with other fire departments to deal with a tanker or rail-car crash. Plants also have emergency response plans and equipment in place, Rudner said.

Keyes Fire Protection District Chief Erik Klevmyr said his department ran a Cilion-site-specific training in the spring.

"(The company) is working with local fire departments. We have multiple plans for different scenarios, like with any plant," he said.

Bee staff writer Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339.

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