WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The Wichita Fire Department said an accident with a forklift caused the three-alarm fire at the Coleman Company, 2111 E. 37th St. North, Wednesday.
“They were unloading a semi-trailer to another semi, one-pound propane cylinders, and … one of the forklifts accidentally punctured one of the crates, and that basically created a chain reaction of what the fire was started from,” Battalion Chief Jose Ocadiz, WFD, said.
Two employees got dry chemical fire extinguishers to extinguish the fire. Unfortunately, it did not work as the propane cylinders began to explode, and the fire progressed very rapidly.
Fire crews got the call around 5:15 p.m. The first crews to arrive saw flames and heavy smoke coming from the east-side loading docks. They quickly requested a second, and then a third alarm to get more firefighters to the scene.
Ocadiz said there were more than 1,000 of the one-pound propane cylinders involved in the fire. The cylinders were exploding and launching several hundred feet in the air.
“That’s what all the popping and explosions that everybody was hearing driving by and sharing videos and pictures and even yourselves from the outside able to start hearing,” he said.
“Flammable liquids, or in this situation it was gas, you know those are just explosions to get to their ignition temperature and the bottles erupt, and so it was challenging initially because just seeing the video coverage and the plume of smoke that was coming there, add in the plastic … that surround the crates, all of that is a fuel, and that just makes the fire that much hotter and faster to spread,” Ocadiz said.
Due to the exploding propane canisters, several grass fires ignited near the structure and several hundred feet to the southeast.
“The incident commander and fire crews had their hands full trying to contain the building fire, but also addressing the grass fires that were occurring from the explosion itself,” he said. “Every fire is different because just the environment outside is a big factor, but the unknowns of the fire load and wind conditions and just what else is involved.”
More than 80 firefighters battled the blaze. They had to stretch over 900 feet of fire hose inside the warehouse to protect the rest of the building.
As crews worked their way into the building, they discovered the fire had extended to several hundred coolers.
“The fire sprinkler system was activated which … assisted with containment of the fire, but it wasn’t going to be able to extinguish it, with the majority of the fire on the exterior,” Ocadiz said. “But there was fire involvement on the interior also. We were able to extinguish that with assistance of the fire sprinkler system.”
“Once we were able to get control of the fire itself and not even to the point of extinguishment but just being able to … stop the spread of the fire into the other semis and other propane cylinders, we were able to cool, start cooling them down and then, little by little, we were able to extinguish the fire, smoldering areas, and cardboard and plastics in very toxic nasty smoke.”
All the workers in the building escaped safely.
“We give a lot of kudos and props to Cleman Industries for having an evacuation and accountability plan,” Ocadiz said. “That’s the most crucial part for the fire department is to be aware of is everybody accounted for.”
“Once that occurs, we’re able to make sure that we could concentrate more on the fire itself,” he said. “We’ll still conduct a search and rescue to verify ourselves, but we’re able to concentrate on extinguishing the fire, especially that size of a warehouse and building.”
The employee who was in the trailer when the fire started was checked by EMS, but refused to be taken to a hospital.
The first crews to arrive at the fire did not get back to their stations until after midnight. While Wichita and Sedgwick County firefighters responded to the Coleman fire, fire departments from Derby, Andover and Cheney helped to cover the rest of Wichita.
“We did have the outside surrounding communities assist us on the outside of the city, just being able to listen to the radios if something came around,” Ocadiz said.
The amount of damage to the building and equipment is still being determined.