CUSHING — Oil companies in Cushing have spent millions of dollars on equipment they hope they never have to use.
The Cushing Fire Department this week worked with those companies on a training exercise, simulating a massive fire at one of the thousands of crude oil storage tanks that dot the northeastern Oklahoma community.
Gavilon Midstream Energy recently spent about $1.3 million on pumps, hoses, monitors and nozzles that would be used only in the worst of disasters.
Enbridge Inc. and Deeprock Energy Resources each made similar investments.
A mutual-aid agreement ensures that the equipment is available for any company in town.
Think of the firefighting equipment like an insurance policy. The companies hope they never have to use it. But if there were a devastating fire, the situation would be far worse without the investment.
Fires are inevitable.
When you're dealing with billions of gallons of flammable fuel in large metal containers, eventually something will spark.
Cushing Fire Chief Chris Pixler said the Cushing terminal — which includes 14 companies, thousands of storage tanks and billions of gallons of oil — experiences a fire on average every five or six years.
But most fires are not to the level that would call for cannons capable of launching 12,000 gallons of foam and water.
Most of the tanks in and around Cushing are designed with roofs that float on the surface of the oil. The floating lids are designed to reduce the risk of fire by preventing oil vapor from collecting in the tank.
The floating roofs also help to contain fires by sealing in most of the oil.
In working to extinguish a fire, crews must be careful to not dump too much water too quickly in a move that could tip or capsize the roof, exposing more of the oil to the flame.
Most of the fires are small and extinguished relatively quickly.
Newer tanks have sprayers built into the top that can quickly pour foam and water inside.
With older tanks, crews must carry large fire hoses up the steps along the outside of the tank wall. Once they reach the top, they use long wands to cover an area with foam to create a safe space to operate while the crews work to put out the rest of the fire.
But if a tank were fully engulfed, those routine practices would not be enough.
A lightning strike in 2006 created such a fire in Glenpool.
Most of Cushing's newer storage tanks are built with enough space between them that fire is unlikely to spread. Many of the older tanks, however, are so close together that if one caught fire, crews likely would use the high-capacity water cannons to coat the walls of nearby tanks in an attempt to keep the fire from spreading.