Colorado Springs Martin Drake Power Plant fire ruled accidental

Crews were called to a fire at the Martin Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs on 8/20/19. Photo courtesy: CSFD
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KKTV) - Power plant employees have been lauded as heroes by firefighters for knowing exactly what to do when a turbine caught fire on Aug. 20.

On Wednesday, the Colorado Springs Fire Department announced the blaze was accidental. Investigators state the fire was the "result of the accumulation of turbine lube oil coming into contact with superheated steam pipes and other local heated metal surfaces. The temperature of the pressurized steam within the pipes reaches 1000 degrees Fahrenheit while the flash-point of turbine lube oil is 478 degrees Fahrenheit. Although there are wet sprinkler system heads in the fire area, the temperature was likely below the high temperature the heads are designed to activate."

More than 20 employees were present when the fire sparked in unit 7 at the Martin Drake Power Plant in downtown Colorado Springs. All evacuated safely, but before doing so, isolated and addressed the oil fire. Fire department spokesperson Capt. Brian Vaughan called plant employees "the initial heroes" of the night.

Even people outside the building said they heard a loud noise when the flames erupted.

"As I was sitting at my desk at the church, I heard multiple booms," said Lee Powers, the pastor for Chadbourn Gospel Mission Church, which is about a quarter-mile from the plant. "I thought initially it was thunder, but realized it didn't sound like thunder."

Firefighters swarmed the building within minutes of getting the call.

"The call for service came in at 8:22 to the call center. We had crews on scene within four and a half minutes," said Capt. Brian Vaughan with the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

"Almost immediately, we started hearing the sounds of sirens as multiple emergency vehicles, fire, officers and ambulances arrived on scene," Powers said.

The fire was contained to a single unit at the facility and won't affect customers, authorities said.

"The system is safe and stable. We have no need for any emergency measures to bring power or anything else we need to do. We have enough resources in place to take care of the city's needs," said Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Aram Benyamin.

The fire ultimately was minimal, but firefighters took no chances responding. Vaughan said more than 70 firefighters were on scene. Of those firefighters, one was treated and released for difficulty breathing on scene after breathing in dry chemical extinguisher powder.

"These are giant motors that run on fuel. Just think of if a car were to rupture in a garage, that would be probably a big deal. These are giant motors in a giant building. Certainly, there are concerns, but we've pre-planned enough to say 'We're not going in' or 'We are going in.'"

The coal-fired plant is responsible for producing 25 percent of the power in Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs Utilities voted in 2015 to shutter the plant by 2035.

The reason employees knew what to do Tuesday night was because of fire training conducted with CSFD. The plant has experienced other fires in the past, most notably in May 2014
when a fire broke out at the power plant. The 2014 fire was caused by "human error," according to investigators with the Colorado Springs Fire Department.

After that fire, it was nearly a year before the plant was running at 100 percent again.