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Fire Folks!

The smoldering images of the India Oil corporation refinery in Sitapur, Rajasthan remain singed in the memory of the entire nation. Eleven oil storage tanks containing 92 Lakh litres of diesel bumt slowly belching out think black clouds of smoke.  The fire cannot be douses, said experts. It is only a wait and watch game till it dies down. During the agonising thirteen days which the fire took to abate itself. it had incurred a loss of US $ 300 million, (500 crores). At least 11 lives were lost, and 150 more were severly injured. Definitely the celebrations planned for NOC's 50th jubilee year were charred forever.

The question in everybod’s mind is ‘why wasn’t a corporation of such scale and stature better prepared for this emergency?’ With sales reported at $60.65 billion for 2008-09, funds could not have been a problem. And this from an organisation which has received the award for the Most Safe Oil Marketing Company (OMC) from the Oil Industry Safety Directorate (OISD).

Theories, theories…

By design, the fire in a petroleum tanker can be controlled. All the oil tanks have a floating roof design, which have an inbuilt fire safety mechanism. A nozzle is fixed at the top of the roof which can pour down foam. This foam can extinguish a raging fire by cutting supply of oxygen and keeping the rest of the oil cool in the container.

One Must know

A water tender carries 4,500 litres of water only.   

However, when it comes to practice, this often fails.


Like in this case, the dyke, elevated platform on which a tank stands, also had spilt oil on it. So when it caught fire the area surrounding the petrol tank too became too hot to handle. And though the mouth of the tank was up in flames, even the petrol at the bottom was heated to boiling point. The rushing of 30 fire brigades, two columns of Army personnel and fire experts from the Mathura refinery was of no help either.

The Chief of Delhi Fire Services, R. C. Sharma explained that any city fire brigade can reach distance of only upto 50-60 m. But in this case, it was not possible to reach even within 300 m of the space. He added categorically, “Industrial set ups ought to have their own equipment. The foam used to extinguish has a life span of about two-three years. Considering the size of an oil refinery, the authorities should keep stock.” The fire in Sitapur did not need flames to spread. Gusts of wind carrying a mixture of petrol vapours travelled and exploded on finding adequate oxygen and temperature. 450 factories in the industrial area were either gutted or damaged. Hence an area upto 5 km was declared “danger zone”.

About 600 litres of water flows through a nozzle in one minute.

If two nozzles are used to throw water on fire, the water tender will be empty only in four minutes.

Hydraulic platform or turn table ladders can reach upto a height of 45- 60 m maximum in favorable conditions

Fierce Impact

The 92 lakh litres of fuel burnt would ultimately release a total of 425 crore litres of carbon dioxide, 150 crore litres of carbon monoxide, besides emitting huge quantities of suspended particulate matter and other harmful gases. The three air quality monitoring stations of the city have recorded triple the levels of sulphur and nitric oxides, suspended particulate matter and respiratory suspended particulate matter in ambient air. The emissions form a deadly cocktail when the oxides of nitrogen and sulphur react with water vapour in the atmosphere to form nitric and sulphuric acids, which can then appear in the form of acid rain. "Though it is not rainy season, one can expect acid rain over Jaipur and its surrounding areas as there is a lot of night precipitation which can become acidic.

So, the dew drops that fall at night may get acidic," Dr Raj Pal Dahiya, Director of Malviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur, said. The data from satellites of India Meteorological Department , IMD, shows the smoky cloud is probably headed towards south Rajasthan, Gujarat and the Arabian Sea. Dr Ajit Tyagi, Director General, IMD said ”Depending on wind direction, the smoke is probably headed towards south. Its movement towards Delhi or the Himalayas is ruled out."

Breath taking

Robert Orben,comic artiste, has said “There is so much pollution in the air now that if it weren’t for our lungs there would be no place to put it all.” All the people in the vicinity are suffering for no fault of theirs. “While patients of respiratory diseases will experience discomfort, bouts of asthma and chronic bronchitis are also likely to occur among people" Dr K. K. Sethi, Director of the Delhi Heart and Lung Institute, said. Those with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema may be more vulnerable. "The chances of a heart attack also increase as pollutants enter the blood stream through lungs and cause inflammation in blood vessels. There are higher chances of blood clotting and hence cardiac problems," Sethi added.

For any place to catch fire, triangle of fuel, heat, and oxygen must be present.
To extinguish it, any one of these have to be cut out.

  Lingering danger...  

Proximity of refineries to residential areas remains at the heart of the problem. But as Srikumar, Executive Director, IOC says, "Population growth near the oil depot is a factor beyond our control. For instance, when we started this storage facility 20 kilometers from Jaipur, it was on barren land. But schools, hospitals, factories and residential areas begin developing in surrounding land in following years."

The Oil Industry Safety Directorate, under the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural gas that formulates and coordinates the implementation of self- regulatory measures aimed at enhancing safety in the Indian oil and gas industry, has said townships should be allowed only beyond 8 km from the storage facility.

So all industrial set ups must be at a safe distance from the residential areas. But even relocation does not seem to help. As in the case of a blaze in Delhi in 1984 in an area called Shakurbasti. It caused widespread damage as it broke out in thickly populated area.

The factory was shifted immediately to Mundka, a vacant place. But today, even this area is heavily urbanised.

Is rampant industrialisation the culprit or unplanned urbanisation? Whatever may be the cause, the Damocles’ sword continues to threaten the common person’s life.


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Fire Folks!