The small black pager that Missoula Fire Department Battalion Chief Steve Paske wears on his right hip vibrated. At the same time, a high-pitched tone pierced the air in Fire Station I. The alerts advised Paske that a Montana Rail Link train was on fire near Scott Street.
"It came in as a locomotive that was smoking and it had a fire on the top of it," Paske says.
Two fire engines headed to the scene. Paske hopped into a red department command vehicle and did the same. Another advisory came as he drove: The dispatcher said the train carried Bakken oil.
The operator didn't say what was on fire. It could have been an engine component or the locomotive's cargo. The latter, as has become clear in a series of accidents across North America this past year, would pose a far more serious threat.
As Paske drove toward the fire, he saw the locomotive parked behind the Northern Pacific Railroad Depot downtown, not at Scott Street as he was initially informed. Light-colored smoke billowed out of the orange locomotive. Paske, who serves as program manager of MFD's Hazmat Team and is a 25-year-department veteran, knew that oil fires produce dark smoke. He quickly concluded the situation was not serious.
Turns out, a shorted out braking modular atop the locomotive's engine sparked the April 20 blaze. Paske says the fire was contained inside a steel box, far from the train's cargo. Nobody got hurt. The incident barely drew headlines. It did, however, call attention to the fact that Bakken oil is increasingly being shipped through Missoula.
MRL says three locomotives carrying roughly 100 cars of Bakken oil each made their way through Missoula last week alone. As of June 9, MRL had transported 23 similar shipments through Missoula this year. At the beginning of June, Bakken oil traffic in 2014 had already tripled over 2013, when MRL says it shipped all of eight comparable loads.
The spike in traffic reflects a trend across North America. In 2008, train operators moved roughly 10,000 carloads of crude. Last year, that number jumped to 434,000. Much of the product is coming from what's called the Bakken Shale in the Williston Basin, deep underground reservoirs of oil that stretch across North Dakota, Canada and Montana. The hydrocarbon-rich basin has ranked North Dakota as the second highest oil-producing state, next to Texas.
As Bakken oil shipments increase, so do the accidents. According to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, more crude oil was spilled in U.S. rail incidents last year than during the nearly four decades prior.
As evidenced by a series of high-profile incidents, those spills present a deadly threat to communities along heavily traveled rail lines. In July, a Bakken train derailed in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, and sparked a series of explosions that killed 47 people and fires that burned for more than a day. Since November, a sequence of spills in Aliceville, Ala., Casselton, N.D., and, most recently, in Lynchburg, Va., prompted federal transportation officials to issue increasingly dire warnings. On May 7, just after the Lynchburg derailment set the James River on fire and threatened the area's drinking water source, the U.S. Department of Transportation delivered its strongest advisory yet, saying the accidents exhibited "a pattern of releases and fires" that "constitute an imminent hazard."
Those who've squared off with Bakken oil fire say it's nearly impossible to fight. Tanker cars explode. Water doesn't extinguish it, nor is the firefighting foam designed to tackle such blazes a sure bet. When the Bakken train fire erupted in Casselton last winter, the foam was frozen by the time it arrived to the scene.
The crashes have prompted railroads to slow down when moving through populated areas. In addition, as of June 7, railroad operators are being required for the first time to tell state officials what routes they're using to transport Bakken oil. The White House, meanwhile, is reviewing a proposed regulatory crackdown, potentially mandating the tankers that carry Bakken crude be reinforced to better withstand derailments.
Absent the White House's new regulations, first responders along North American railroads are largely left with the status quo—the potential of putting out tanker cars that have been proven to breech in accidents involving highly flammable cargo.
Missoula Fire Chief Jason Diehl is aware of Bakken oil's challenges. He says his crew is as prepared as they can be. They have management plans in place should an oil fire arise. That said, he's under no illusions. If a derailment similar to what happened in Quebec or Casselton occurred in downtown Missoula, he says, "That would be catastrophic."
At 11 p.m. on July 5, 2013, an engineer operating a 72-car freight train traveling from North Dakota to a New Brunswick oil refinery parked the locomotive on the main line roughly eight miles outside Lac-Mégantic, Quebec. He left the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic train engine idling, set a series of brakes and left it there unattended. Forty minutes later, a nearby resident called emergency personnel to report the locomotive was on fire.
According to information compiled by the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Association, the local fire department and railroad representatives responded. They shut down the engine and extinguished the fire, again leaving the Bakken oil train unattended on the track.
Investigators say a malfunctioning piston in the diesel engine sparked the first small blaze, but they're still working to piece together what happened next. Roughly an hour after emergency personnel attended to the piston fire and left the scene, the 10,000-pound train started to roll down the track toward Lac-Mégantic. Unmoored and without an engineer, it careened, at speeds of up to 64 miles per hour, the 7.4 miles to Lac-Mégantic.
Of the 72 cars, 63 derailed. At least 60 breached, releasing some 1.6 million gallons of crude. Tankers exploded one by one, sending fireballs into the air that could be seen for miles around.
The Musi Café in downtown Lac-Mégantic was crowded that night with celebrants dancing to live music. Many of the 47 people who died were inside the café when the train derailed and flames engulfed the establishment. Those on the patio survived. The fire burned until July 7 and destroyed 40 buildings, decimating much of downtown Lac-Mégantic.
Dave Rogness followed the news coming out of Lac-Mégantic from his office in North Dakota. The articles documented flaming oil that ran into sewers, then reemerged through manhole covers that popped in the streets.
"I go, 'Oh my God, that sounds like Armageddon,'" says Rogness, who serves as Cass County's emergency manager. "That got my attention real quick."
Rogness is responsible for planning for the worst in North Dakota's most populated county. Because roughly 120 Bakken oil trains move through Cass County daily, Rogness couldn't help but worry that what happened in Lac-Mégantic could occur closer to home.