A smoldering metals fire apparently mixed with moisture from a summer rain caused an explosion that led to a brush fire at the ATI Specialty Alloys and Components (Wah Chang) complex in Millersburg on Aug. 28, according to a preliminary report by the Albany Fire Department. The explosion was heard inside the plant and nearby residences in Albany, the report states. “It released a large amount of hot embers that were blown/spread by the explosive reaction. Hot metals/materials from the reaction landed approximately 250 feet away from the storage area igniting readily and available fuels,” wrote AFD Division Chief Scott Cowan, in the report. “This violent reaction shot the hot materials in a 360-degree circumference around the storage area of this metal. This created a dramatic and quick growth of the fire and fire spread,” he added. ATI did not report injuries to any of its employees near the explosion, Cowan wrote. Though the report doesn’t list the cause of the ignition — that remained officially under investigation by ATI at the time the document was completed — abandoned or discarded materials or products and improper container or storage procedures were listed as contributing factors, according to the report.
Dozens of firefighters from local public safety agencies and the Oregon Department of Forestry responded to battle the flames at and near ATI Specialty Alloys and Components, which pumped black smoke into the sky. Ash from the fire fell at least as far south as Mennonite Village.
The blaze also charred about three woodland acres at nearby Simpson Park in Albany, and also impacted property owned by International Paper.
The fire was reported at about 11:16 a.m., according to a news release from AFD, and the flames brought under control by 3 p.m. on Aug. 28. Firefighters continued to mop up hot spots until Wednesday night.
A flatbed trailer and other materials, including clean fiberglass ducting, were burned on ATI property, according to the AFD news release, issued on Wednesday night.
Cowan had multiple conversations with ATI employees during the fire response. He was told that a metals fire occurred on Aug. 26 or Aug. 27 in a storage yard in the facility.
“The metals fire was in a pile of shavings that was waste material consisting of mostly zirconium, but maybe a mixture of other materials, as well. The fire was assumed to be out, but there were unsure,” Cowan wrote.
“The storage area isn’t covered, and it had rained the night of (Aug. 27). A contract employee was using a track hoe to move some of the shavings,” he continued.
By moving the materials in the pile, an unstable situation was created with the metals fire, where moisture mixed and creating a by-product of hydrogen gas, Cowan added. The combination created the explosion, he wrote.
The report also indicates that a firefighter had heat-related medical issues battling the blaze on Wednesday afternoon and was transported to Samaritan Albany General Hospital, treated and released.
As a response, firefighters were asked to pause during suppression efforts to consume fluids and food. Public safety workers also were instructed to change from structural fire personal protective equipment to wildland firefighting gear.
The Albany Democrat-Herald formally requested a copy of the fire report.
Last week, the Albany Fire Department referred requests for information on the cause of the fire to ATI.
An ATI representative could not be reached for comment on Monday afternoon.