More than a week after a lightning strike ignited a fire at a storage facility for stover bales that will be used at the DuPont cellulosic ethanol plant in Nevada, the embers are still burning. Nevada Director of Fire and EMS Ray Reynolds has ordered the fire department to let the fire burnout instead of attempting to fight it by more conventional means. According to Reynolds, that decision was made based on previous experience with stover fires in the area.
“We have quite a bit of experience with stover fires and the amount of water it would take to smother out a stover fire would probably drain the water towers in several communities. So when we looked at risk versus reward on what we’re really getting to put cornstalks out it’s just not an acceptable loss,” Reynolds said.
According to a representative of DuPont, the fire, which has already consumed 10,000 bales of stover, could continue burning for two or three weeks if it’s left to burn out.
Reynolds said he knows this isn’t the most ideal way to handle a fire such as this but in his time as a firefighter, he said there hasn’t been a better way presented to him.
“I’ve been a firefighter for 30 years and in 30 years we still haven’t figured out a good way to put out smoldering products like hay and corn,” Reynolds said.
Despite the site producing heat and smoke for more than a week, Reynolds said that there is little chance of serious health risks because it is a natural material that is being burned.
With this being the sixth fire of this type in as many years, the next step in the process has become a pretty common practice, according to Melissa Spencer, deputy coordinator for Story County Emergency Management.
“We’re helping to facilitate an after-action review of the fire that took place,” Spencer said. “What we do is kind of go over the overall response, discuss how it went and have discussions about future ways to either mitigate this potential for future fires or address any possible change of the technique to deal with these fires should future ones occur.”
The last action review to come out of a similar fire was in 2014. From that review, the county offered DuPont several tips on how to stop these types of fires in the future, but according to Spencer the county has no real authority to demand any of the changes take place because of an agricultural exemption in the county and state codes.
“We’ve been allowed to make our inputs and our concerns with them (DuPont), and they’ve taken those under advisement, but because of this ag exemption … there’s no authority that emergency management has to dictate how they will store these,” Spencer said.
According to John Pieper, the corn stover and feedstock supply chain development lead for DuPont, DuPont has changed some practices since 2014 based on the recommendations, including how many bales are stored in one place.
“We actually store in fewer larger stacks now then what we did before, and we’ve also changed the isolation configuration for it. We provide buffer zones between ourselves and adjoining property and between the different sets of stacks on a property,” Pieper said.
Unfortunately, the location of the stack at the corner of 570th Avenue and 190th Street was among the older types of configurations. As a result, DuPont lost more than half the stover it had stored for the cellulosic plant.
Pieper said that shouldn’t delay the startup of the plant any further than it has already been delayed since, because they have enough stover to run through the 2017 season.
“If we were operational, this is still a very small loss,” Pieper said.
Editor’s Note
While working on this article, an attempt was made by the Ames Tribune to take photos of the smoldering stover pile from 570th Avenue, a public road. We at the Tribune believe that what happened following that attempt is worth noting for the readers.
In the interview with Nevada Director of Fire and EMS Ray Reynolds the question was asked whether or not a photographer would be stopped if attempting to get close enough to the fire to take a photo. Reynolds directed the photographer to approach the security checkpoint from the north for a place to take the photo.
After doing so, a member of the Tribune staff was allowed to sign in with a security guard from Quaker Security and to walk around a barricade reading “Road Closed” to travel down the road to take photos. Moments later, the security guard drove quickly down the gravel road after giving the photographer enough time to take only two photos and demanded that they both returned to the checkpoint so the photographer could provide identification.
After returning to the checkpoint, the security guard said the photographer no longer had the right to be on the public road and that all photos needed to be deleted. The photographer called the Story County Sheriff’s Office to inform them of a security guard denying access to a public road. Upon arrival, a Story County sheriff’s deputy, said the Tribune staff member could be charged with a crime for walking around the barricade, despite having permission from the security guard.
Then, to appease the guard’s boss, who had been on the phone with the security guard throughout the conversation, the deputy politely demanded that the photographer delete the photos.
We believe this is worth noting to the Ames and Story County community because it begs the question, does a Story County deputy and a security guard presumably hired by DuPont have the authority to make journalists delete photos because a company demands it?