April 10, 1989
A fire in a chemical plant in Saticoy, California destroyed
the plant and two adjoining occupancies and caused the community's
1,500 residents to be evacuated for 10 hours on April 10,
1989. Two firefighters were treated for exposure to toxic
products, and 14 others were evaluated at a hospital for
potential exposure. Clean-up and decontamination after the
fire are expected to cost more than $200,000, and involve
removal of the entire contents of the plant and recovery
of runoff and contaminated soil in the surrounding area.
The plant, which prepared chemical ingredients for pharmaceutical
companies, had been the subject of legal actions resulting
from efforts to enforce fire, building, and environmental
health regulations. A fire inspector and a building safety
inspector had been injured in an incident at the plant several
months earlier when they were exposed to toxic products
while conducting an inspection. After code enforcement actions
had been initiated, the business and property owners had
notified the Fire Department that its personnel would not
be admitted without a warrant.
The Ventura County Fire Department took an extremely cautious
approach to the incident, based on prior knowledge of the
hazards inside the building. A policy directive had been
issued to stay out of the building in the event of a fire,
because of the known nature of the products involved.
The incident presents a strong case for requiring reporting
of hazards for chemical occupancies. It also demonstrates
the difficulties that are often encountered in attempting
to enforce hazardous materials code requirements. The injuries
sustained by personnel operating at the scene were minor,
particularly in view of the hazards that were encountered.
The company stored and mixed chemicals which were used as
ingredients in drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.
The production of these ingredients is not regulated by
the Food and Drug Administration.
The building housed an estimated 300 different chemicals
in quantities ranging from hundreds of gallons to a few
ounces. The substances included flammable liquids, toxic
products, water reactive and photo sensitive chemicals,
heavy metals, and corrosives. The interior of the building
was crowded with chemicals stored in 55 gallon drums and
many types of smaller containers, along with mixing vats,
glassware, and other equipment used to mix and prepare end
products for shipment. Many of the containers were unlabelled.
Several drums were stored outside the building and in a
storage container in the parking area. A metal fence behind
the container was heavily corroded from vapors escaping
from the container or the drums stored next to it.
Fire protection in Saticoy is provided by the Ventura County
Fire Department, a career department that protects the unincorporated
areas of the county and several incorporated cities. An
engine company provides the first due response to Saticoy
on automatic aid. Both the County and City Fire Departments
have trained and equipped hazardous materials response teams.
Pacific Intermediates had provided information to the County
Fire Department on the types of materials present on the
premises, as required by California Hazard Communications
regulations. The report included several items that were
known to be present in bulk quantities, as well as a long
list of small quantity chemicals. The information supplied
would basically comply with the SARA reporting requirements.
The Ventura County Fire Department distributed copies of
the information package to the first due battalion, initial
response companies, and the Hazardous Incident Response
Team. The Ventura City engine company that responds to the
location received a copy from the Battalion Chief. A copy
was retained at Fire Prevention to be transported to the
scene of an incident by an inspector. All Hazard Communications
documents are managed in a similar manner
At 1803 on Monday, April 10, 1989, the Ventura County Fire
Department received a report of smoke coming from the Pacific
Intermediates occupancy, from the proprietor of an adjoining
business. A first alarm response of two engine companies,
one ladder company, and a Battalion Chief was dispatched.
The first arriving units reported smoke showing, and the
HazMat teams from both Ventura County and Ventura City were
requested, along with the inspector who had been managing
the case. Entry was made to the adjoining occupancies to
check for fire extension, but not into the chemical company.
The incident commander consulted with the HazMat teams
and with the inspector to develop a plan of action. Three
major concerns were addressed:
Mixing of chemicals inside the building
Airborne products of combustion
A steady westerly wind of 7 to 8 mph was blowing the products
of combustion into an unpopulated area, allowing operations
to be set up on the west side of the building. After a detailed
assessment of the situation, a decision was made to set
up for a cautious entry from the upwind side, through the
south adjoining occupancy, to stop extension in that direction.
A decontamination area was established, and companies prepared
to move in cautiously.
By the time the attack team was ready, the fire had vented
through the roof of the building and was burning through
the wall into the adjoining occupancy. The attack was initiated
at 2030 and was successful in knocking down most of the
visible fire in the Pacific Intermediates occupancy with
a brief application of hose streams. As the situation appeared
to be coming under control, the wind shifted, and the production
of smoke and vapors increased dramatically. This made it
necessary to abandon the established decon area and all
of the equipment that had been assembled on the west side
of the building. The attack teams were withdrawn quickly
at 2058 and directed to a clear area.
With the decon area unusable, the attack team was gathered
in a parking area to await decontamination. A considerable
delay was encountered, during which time one of the company
officers reported feeling ill and extremely fatigued. He
was decontaminated with a hose stream and transported by
ambulance to a hospital where he received treatment in a
hyperbaric chamber. After decontamination, the remaining
14 members of the attack team and the property owner were
transported to the hospital for evaluation. All of these
individuals were tested and released, showing no symptoms
of exposure injury.
The command post was rapidly relocated and a reassessment
of the situation was made. The County Sheriff's representative
was asked to begin evacuating the residential and business
occupancies to the north at 2118. The evacuation took place
in two phases, eventually involving 1,500 residents. Two
additional HazMat teams were requested, from Santa Barbara
and Los Angeles Counties, each responding from over 50 miles
to the scene.
The fire became very spectacular as the large quantities
of flammable liquids stored in the building became involved.
Flames extended to the two occupancies north of the chemical
company, and they were also totally destroyed. With most
of the available fuel consumed, the fire died down at approximately
0200 hours. HazMat team members wearing B-level protective
clothing over structural firefighting protective clothing
made an entry into the fire area at that time to complete
Runoff from the fire was contained by diking the roads
and parking lots around the building. In the process of
diking, an additional Fire Department member reported symptoms
of exposure to chemical vapors while assisting a backhoe
operator. This member was also transported to the hospital
and was released after evaluation.
The amount of water used by firefighters was held to a
minimum, but a broken domestic water pipe added considerably
to the runoff volume and to the concern with water reactive
chemicals in the building. Hazardous waste contractors collected
all of the liquid and contaminated soil after the site was
turned over to Environmental Health authorities. Residents
of the town were able to return to their homes at dawn,
but several adjoining businesses remained inaccessible for
Fire investigators were unable to determine the cause of
the fire due to the total destruction of the area of origin.
This incident provides emphasis for several important points
that relate to incidents in hazardous materials occupancies
and, in particular, to firefighter health and safety. It
reinforced the three priority considerations for a hazardous
Protection of the Environment
Protection of Property
Specific lessons learned include the following:
A fire department must be active in prevention, planning
and information management to be prepared when a serious
In this fire, knowledge of the hazards involved was sufficient
to keep firefighters out of the building and to reduce the
risk of serious injury or exposure. The available information
was managed well and proved to be extremely valuable.Although
persistent efforts to enforce code requirements were unsuccessful
the Fire Department established that it tried to take the
actions within its power to prevent this incident.
Access to reserves of specialized skills and equipment may
be needed in a hazardous materials incident.
The availability of the inspector who had conducted code
enforcement activities to respond to the incident proved
very helpful to the incident commander. On the other hand,
more trained decontamination personnel were needed, as well
as a reserve of decontamination equipment and supplies.
Assistance had to be requested from distant sources.
A finance officer should be assigned at incidents where
the need for extensive accounting and cost recovery activities
can be anticipated.
Several agencies and private sector organizations are currently
involved in analyzing the financial outcome of this incident.
When evacuating an area, even businesses that appear to
be closed need to be checked for occupants.
At least one occupant was found to have spent the night
in an occupancy inside the immediate danger area, unaware
of the fire. Also, better perimeter control was needed to
restrict access to the evacuated area and the area where
operations were conducted.
The incident commander needs to develop a viable contingency
plan, in case the primary plan proves unsuccessful.
A wind shift and a change in fire conditions made it necessary
to abandon the original plan, relocate, and regroup. This
process caused an excessive delay in decontaminating the
entry team and could have had more severe consequences.
Procedures are needed to turn over control of the incident
scene to other agencies after the Fire Department has completed
its primary activities.
After the incident commander's function was terminated,
there was no single source of information or direction with
respect to the incident. A single post-incident point of
contact is needed within the Fire Department, as well as
clear identification of the agency assuming jurisdiction
over the incident site. Other agencies involved in hazardous
materials incidents are often not accustomed to assuming
control of the scene in a structured manner.
Hazardous materials teams need guidance on the proper protective
ensembles to wear when faced with a combination fire/chemical
During the overhaul stage of this fire, the B-level protection
over regular turnout clothing proved to be adequate. Normally,
entry to this type of hazard would be made with A-level
protection, but the current ensembles do not interface with
fire protective clothing.
Safety officers and supervisors need to remain vigilant
throughout every incident.
Extended duration incidents require constant observation
by supervisors and safety officers to ensure that safety
procedures are maintained.