The Cushing Fire Department joined with several oil companies in the area last week to test equipment needed to extinguish large fires in any of the thousands of 250,000-barrel storage tanks that dot the northeast Oklahoma community.
Like many things in the oil patch and in industry in general, techniques have improved significantly.
Reader Mickey McVay wrote me to tell of his family’s experiences.
McVay’s grandfather worked in the Cushing oilfield in 1915. At the time, the oil storage tanks were made of wood, not steel.
“I remember my grandmother talking about one of the community forms of entertainment was watching large wooden oil storage tanks burn due to a lighting strike,” McVay wrote. “She said they would gather on a hillside and watch the tanks burn. At some point, the heat from the fire at the top of the tank would make the oil below hot enough so it would boil over, causing flames to really shoot up in the sky.”
Boiling over is still a significant issue.
Oil storage tanks naturally collect some water, which sinks below the oil. When fighting a fire, much more water is added to the mix.
Oil does not burn easily, but when it does catch flame, it burns extremely hot, which can make the water beneath the oil boil over, making an already difficult situation even more volatile.
That part of the reason why crews use a mix of water and foam and why they use the large water cannons to spray the outside of the tanks and lower their temperatures.
The oil patch also has significantly improved many of its other practices over the past century.
McVay shared that while his mom and grandparents were living in the Three Sands Field south of Tonkawa, oil drilling dictated how laundry was cared for.
“Someone from an oil company would often come by and tell women in the lease houses not to hang their wash out to dry that day, as they would be ‘bringing in’ a new well, which would likely result in an oil spray covering the area,” McVay said.
Today, blowouts are extremely rare and costly mistakes, not common practice.