Sacto 9-1-1
August 25, 2011
Q&A with Lincoln Fire Chief: What was key to avoiding disaster?

Dave Whitt.jpgLincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt, 50, was the man at the center of the successful resolution of the tanker propane fire this week -- a stubborn fuel fire that had the potential to result in major devastation.

Whitt, the leader of the 24-firefighter department, has been chief since 2006. Before that, he worked fighting wildland fires for the federal government for 6 years and for 18 years was a member of the Sacramento Fire Department.

At Sac City he worked his way up from firefighter to Battalion Chief. For a time, as a fire captain, he was the public information officer for Sacramento City Fire.

Photo gallery: Propane fire threatens Lincoln

Today, Whitt supplied some answers about two days of harrowing firefighting:

The Bee: What did firefighters do right to bring this to a close?

Whitt: The first firefighters went into a daycare center right across the street. They were able to evacuate 6 children and 3 adults to a safe location..

The Bee: After that was there something else that was real important?

Whitt: The suggestion was made to put some ground-based monitors (unattended water hoses) on the tanker. I said that's what we need to do: attack, attack attack. The guys did an outstanding job to get that accomplished.

The Bee: What would have you done differently?

Whitt: I think I called appropriate resources when I needed to. I think the guys did an outstanding job of putting the monitors exactly where they needed to go. You start thinking about it and you ask yourself: 'Am I going to vaporize my men? Am I making the right decisions to stay safe?' Now we can say everything worked out fine. But these are low-frequency but high-risk situations.

The Bee: Why was it important to train water on the rail car?

Whitt: We don't want the tank to degrade and have a catastrophic failure.

The Bee: Meaning the tank will blow up?

Whitt: Yes.

The Bee: Can these tankers be made more safe?

Whitt: Compared to what they used to be, these tankers are markedly safer. This is a fairly new tank, made in 2005. It's not a Cadillac but it's a pretty good tank. There's a lot of safety features on this you probably didn't have 40 years ago. The metallurgy is different on the valving systems and the components are better but that does not change the tactics on fighting the fire. You still need to have the water on there and the tank stays cool.

The Bee: Who is the lead investigator?

Whitt: It's my incident until I turn it over to somebody else. It looks like federal Railroad Administration is going to be the primary lead.

The Bee: Does it still look like an accident?

Whitt: There is nothing to indicate anything other than an accidental cause.

The Bee: When will your report be ready?

Whitt: I'm not so sure I would release it. We will probably put out a press release that says we are turning the investigation over to the federal Railroad Adminstration and they will release cause in their own due time.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lincoln fire chief Dave Whitt said that authorities will try to drain the propane from a burning rail car in a maneuver to prevent an explosion, during a news conference in Lincoln, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2011. Between 4,000 and 5,000 homes were evacuated Tuesday, when a rail car carrying 29,000 gallons of liquid propane burst into flames near their homes. Fire officials initially said the blaze could continue for 21 days, but Whitt said that scenario was unacceptable. Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press.

Previous coverage:

Flames from propane tanker no longer visible; Lincoln residents return home - Aug. 25, 2011

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