Quick thinking by DGC teams lessen impacts of fire

Dakota Gas Supervisor of Electrical and Instrumentation Maintenance Nick Ahlschlager

An unplanned fire is never a good thing. But, when observant, quick-thinking, conscientious people are onsite, negative impacts can be significantly diminished.

Around 2 p.m. on March 30 while maintenance was being performed in one of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant’s 14 cooling tower cells, the plastic packing material in the cell started on fire. Just minutes after the fire broke out, Nick Ahlschlager, Dakota Gas supervisor of electrical and instrumentation (E&I) maintenance, was leaving the shop north of the cooling towers and saw black smoke.

“The first thing I thought when I saw the smoke was that the fans had to be sucking flames into the electrical conduits that run on the north side of the cells,” Ahlschlager says. “They are 4,160 volts and have potential for a large arc flash, which is basically an explosion from electrical current going to ground – the higher the voltage the larger the concern.” He says that area of the plant has one of the highest voltages the plant has and takes specially trained electricians to work on it because of the potential hazards. An arc flash has the potential to severely injure employees and cause extensive damage to plant infrastructure.

Ahlshlager says he knew he needed to act fast and immediately directed his team to shut down the cooling cells on each side of the impacted cell. Even though that decision was made very quickly, the cooling cells had already been shut down by the plant’s operations crew, directed by Lyle Zinke, the on-duty shift superintendent. The operators also put out the fire in cell 9 with a fire hose.

Once the fire began dying down, Ahlschlager and Zinke worked together and determined that the fire had the potential to damage the cables for six other cells. “We decided to power up cells 1-7 leaving 8 down to be conservative,” Ahlschlager says. “We did everything we could to only shut down one or two cells because water temperature is so critical to our operation. We quickly powered cells 1-7 up and operations put them in high speed because the temperature was rising so quickly.” Later that evening the E&I group performed testing on the cables and motors to determine the cables on cells 8, 9, and 12-14 were all good and the decision was made to start all but 9, 10, and 11 because of the fire damage to the cells.

In addition to the work of the operations and E&I crews, the quick response of Dakota Gas’ on-site firefighters helped minimize damage to the facility.

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