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Large fire at “SAM Automotive” in Böhmenkirch

Category: National Firefighting Team of the Year

Fire department: Freiwillige Feuerwehr Böhmenkirch (Baden-Württemberg)

Operation: Large fire at “SAM Automotive” in Böhmenkirch

On Saturday, March 10, 2018, shortly after 3 pm, a fire in the electroplating area of the Böhmenkirch company “SAM Automotive” triggered a major operation with around 220 rescue workers. The Böhmenkirch FD with its sub-units, the Bartholomä, Geislingen and Eislingen FDs as well as the joint hazardous materials truck belonging to the Salach FD deployed to the Heidhöfe with 26 vehicles and all available firefighters. An additional 13 rescue service vehicles with 26 crew members supported them in containing this major fire. 

According to regional fire chief Michael Reick, fighting the fire presented a huge challenge because large parts of the over 200 m² anodising system were already blazing when the forces arrived. Initially, the task consisted of maintaining the firewall to the neighbouring hall as well as fighting the fire in Hall 1 SAM. This area contained substantial amounts of flammable liquids, including highly concentrated acid and alkaline solutions in over 20 m³ basins. Despite the rapid indoor attack on the fire with a number of troops, the fire quickly spread. The flames reached to the ceiling; as the roof fell victim to the flames, a 500 m² area of it collapsed. Further parts of the building were then acutely endangered from collapse as well. 

At this point, it was more than uncertain whether the fire could be contained within its current section, or whether the entire premises of over 6,400 m² would fall. After weighing the potential dangers, the decision was made to start another indoor attack. 

Two turntable ladders supported the extinguishing activities from above. However, the firefighters were repeatedly forced to retreat and restructure their activities due to the rest of the collapsing ceiling, intermittent escape of larger quantities of hazardous materials or firefighting water mixed with alkali and acid that flowed into the company courtyard. Reick thus spoke of a “very dynamic operation”.

Due to the courageous action of many troops participating in the interior attack, the fire was stopped near the anodising system in Hall 1 SAM, which prevented any further spread. The outside walls of the anodising plant did not meet fire protection regulations; fortunately, however, it had only a few unprotected openings. These allowed the indoor troops to effectively combat the spread of the fire. Nearly three hours after the begin of the operation, a “fire under control” message could be sent. 

It is now known that circa 400 m³ of various hazardous materials consisting of acids, alkalis and water were located near the anodising system. There was also an additional 280 to 300 m³ of extinguishing water. During the operation, the entire mixture was distributed over the basement of the building, the exterior retention basins, the fire room of the sewage system and other unknown areas. Timely shutdown of the pumping station and suction of the spilt chemicals at several points prevented a significant spread of the hazardous substances and thus, great environmental damage. 

Even three hours after the outbreak of the fire, the complex situation made it impossible to completely douse the isolated embers due to the danger of collapse. In the further course of events, small incipient fires were reported again and again from the turntable ladders, but these could be successfully extinguished.

Shortly after 8 pm, the first fire departments and their crews could be removed from the operation. “Fire out” was reported at 10:12 pm. The Böhmenkirch FDs, including its sub-units, took responsibility for subsequently monitoring the site.

The cleanup activities began on Sunday, March 11, 2018. Due to the remaining hazardous substances that could not be disposed of or pumped out, the building could not be entered for structural reasons. The hazardous area under risk of collapse was closed and access to it prohibited. At this time, there were still around 200 m³ of hazardous substances on the ground floor and a further 120 m³ in the basement.

The Böhmenkirch FD was thus tasked with suctioning up the materials in the basement, which – though leaky – was not in danger of collapse. After pumping it out, the crew members began with neutralisation measures.

After environmental authorities clarified the acute situation and delivered a sufficient quantity of lime, the decision was made to treat and neutralise the extinguishing water that was already in the gutter of the retention basin as well as the exterior basin. The Böhmenkirch FD pumped out the basement with three submersible pumps, drained the liquids (pH 1-2) into an adjacent basin of the exterior area and neutralised them with lime. After all but 2 to 4 centimetres of the basement had been pumped out, further measures were discontinued in agreement with environmental authorities. 

At 7:49 pm, the Böhmenkirch FD reported the end of the operation.