[UPDATED] Fire at Coal Power Plant Takes Facility Out of Service Indefinitely

[Update May 13] A serious fire at the Martin Drake Power Plant in downtown Colorado Springs will leave the facility offline for an indefinite period of time. The fire began at approximately 9:40 a.m. on May 5. The first firefighters arrived on the scene within five minutes and faced a difficult decision on how to proceed.

According to Colorado Springs Fire Chief Chris Riley, the situation involved hydrogen, coal dust, and myriad other hazardous materials. “There was the potential of some kind of an explosion, whether [firefighters] were attempting to put the fire out or if they would have let the fire burn. The choice was made—and it was not taken lightly—the firefighters made the choice to go in and aggressively put the fire out. They were successful, obviously doing that without an explosion, but make no mistake, there was an element of risk as they were doing that. It could have exploded, but it most certainly would have exploded had the firefighters not gone in and the fire just continued to grow.” In the end, approximately 120 firefighters and support personnel using a total of 23 fire apparatuses fought the four-alarm fire.

Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) owns the Drake plant. The facility has three operational units—Units 5, 6, and 7—with a combined capacity of 254 MW. The units were built in 1962, 1968, and 1974 respectively, and account for roughly one quarter of CSU’s generation capacity. Extensive damage was caused to the turbine deck (Figures 1 and 2) and basement (Figure 3) as a result of the fire.

1. Turbine deck. Courtesy: Colorado Springs Utilities

2. Turbine deck roof. Courtesy: Colorado Springs Utilities

3. Basement. Courtesy: Colorado Springs Utilities

CSU noted that it plans and practices for these types of situations, which was helpful in getting all employees safely evacuated. There were no major injuries, although one employee was evaluated at the scene and released, and a contract worker was transported to a local hospital for treatment of minor injuries and later released. “Nobody was seriously hurt,” Riley said. “[The firefighters] went in and quickly put the fire out. Probably within about an hour, the main body of the fire was put out.”

Over 22,000 customers lost power as a result of the fire, but workers had electricity restored within 40 minutes. More disruptive was the voluntary evacuation of personnel within a five-block radius of the plant, which affected an estimated 785 people and lasted for about four hours. Some businesses were also affected and the railroad was closed to train traffic during the same period. The fire was finally declared “under control” at 12:42 p.m.

The initial investigation determined that the fire was accidental and began when free flowing lubricating oil came into contact with high-temperature steam pipes, resulting in a flash fire. The oil continued to feed the fire—increasing its size and severity—until the firefighters succeeded in suppressing it. The ongoing investigation may take several more weeks to determine all of the details that led to the blaze.

The Colorado Springs Utility Board had commissioned a study last year—completed by HDR Engineering—to consider a range of options for the future of the plant, including retirement. The study was presented to the board in February 2014, but it remains uncertain how the fire will affect the evaluation of alternatives.

“Until we know the extent of the damage to the plant, we really don’t know the length of time the facility will be out of service,” said John Romero, general manager of energy services for CSU during a press briefing on May 6.

The company plans to use its other owned facilities; utilize long-term purchase power agreements; purchase hydroelectric, wind, and solar power from local and regional sources; and make spot market purchases to maintain reliable service for customers while the plant is offline.

Aaron Larson, associate editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine)

Originally published on May 7. Updated on May 13 to incorporate additional details that have become available as a result of the follow-up investigation.

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