Firefighters Guide to Invisible Fire Otherwise Known as Ethanol Fires

“Advise PD (aka Petey) that we have Etoh on board”.

We all know what ETOH means, but what the hell does it stand for. It means that our patient is drunk. It stands for Ethanol.

Ethanol via Wikipedia:

Ethanol is a straight-chain alcohol, and its molecular formula is C2H5OH. Its empirical formula is C2H6O. An alternative notation is CH3–CH2–OH, which indicates that the carbon of a methyl group (CH3–) is attached to the carbon of a methylene group (–CH2–), which is attached to the oxygen of a hydroxyl group (–OH). It is a constitutional isomer of dimethyl ether. Ethanol is often abbreviated as EtOH, using the common organic chemistry notation of representing the ethyl group (C2H5) with Et.

I bet that some of you didn’t know that! I didn’t.

Ethanol Fires, otherwise known as “invisible fire” is very dangerous. Ethanol burns a blue flame and smokeless….. and are darn near invisible to the naked eye. If you cannot see it, you could very easily find yourself enveloped in fire before you realize it.

Ethanol fuel via Wikipedia:

Ethanol fuel is ethanol (ethyl alcohol), the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It is most often used as a motor fuel, mainly as a biofuel additive for gasoline. World ethanol production for transport fuel tripled between 2000 and 2007 from 17 billion to more than 52 billion litres. From 2007 to 2008, the share of ethanol in global gasoline type fuel use increased from 3.7% to 5.4%.[1] In 2009 worldwide ethanol fuel production reached 19.5 billion gallons (73.9 billion liters).[2]

Today, we had a short hazardous materials class led by Lt. Travis Simmons. I enjoyed learning a few new things. It made me think about a video below that I had watched a while back and I figured I would put this article together.

Most of the useful information in this post is in the links. There are links below to A LOT of useful information on Ethanol fuels and Ethanol fires.

Jamie-Andrea Yanak / AP file Several cars from a freight train hauling ethanol and other hazardous chemicals derailed in Painesville, Ohio, in October, setting off a large, smoky fire and prompting the evacuation of a half-mile area.

Information on extinguishing Ethanol fires (link with plenty more info.): A series of performance fire tests were conducted on denatured ethyl alcohol, ethanol, (95% ethanol that was denatured with 5% gasoline) and on gasohol (defined by API as regular unleaded gasoline with up to 10% by volume ethyl alcohol). The purpose of the test program was to evaluate the effectiveness of various foam concentrates and other water additives on these two types of fuels.

Another article with extinguishing information here: Many fire departments around the country don’t have the foam, don’t have enough of it, or are not well-trained in how to apply it, firefighting experts say. It is also more expensive than conventional foam.

Post incident perspective of an Ethanol tank fire:
The Incident: The Incident One person is missing, and another has minor injuries after an explosion and fire at an ethanol tank at Port Kembla, south of Wollongong, in New South Wales. The tank, 7 million litres of inflammable liquid, blew up near the Port Kembla steelworks shortly before 10am AEDT.

Training module on Fire Fighting Foam Principles and Ethanol-Blended Fuel (.pdf)

Two Firefighters recently died in an ethanol truck fire. The Secret List has the story here.

Maybe the idea for the next clip from Talladega nights came from Mears fire above…enjoy!

One of the larger more recent ethanol fires occured in Baltimore as seen in the video below. During the video, you can see flames, but that is not the ethanol burning. The ethanol had burned off by this point. When the ethanol was burning, the ethanol and invisible flame was rolling off the edge of the bridge and burning cars below.

May 13, 2007 Baltimore, MD. A tanker truck overturned and burst into flames on a curving interstate ramp, killing the driver and sending a burning stream of its load of ethanol into the street below, igniting a row of parked vehicles.