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Train Fire Sparks Concern
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Earlier this month, a burning propane tanker rail car forced the evacuation of residents within a one-mile radius of the potentially explosive situation in Lincoln, outside Sacramento.

It's a scenario that could be repeated in Escalon.

"When I saw it, my initial, thought was 'that could easily be us'," said Escalon Consolidated Fire Protection District Chief Rick Mello.

Escalon, with trains rolling through multiple times a day and businesses with items from petroleum to stored liquid propane and liquid oxygen, offers up quite the volatile situation.

"If it did happen here, we're not the first to deal with it," Mello said, noting that he watched the evacuation and subsequent firefighting efforts play out in Lincoln.

In that case, firefighters kept water flowing to keep the tank car cool, but allowed the propane to burn off, some 29,000 gallons burning off before people were allowed to return to their homes.

"We saw what went right, what went wrong," Mello said.

Working on the one-mile radius evacuation zone, the chief said such an incident in Escalon would leave the community looking like a ghost town.

"If you drive a mile in each direction (from the tracks) you'd see how much it would impact the city," he explained. "You're looking at evacuating the schools, convalescent homes, businesses."

Mello said he watches the pressurized tank vessels rolling through town on the rail lines on a daily basis and nearly as many rumbling along Highway 120.

"There's a lot" in town at any given time, he said.

"Anything is possible and we live in a 'what if' society," Mello said.

To that end, his department is proactive in their hazardous materials training, and has at least one HazMat technician or specialist on each shift.

Battalion Chief Joe Pelot is a specialist and has attended some higher-level classes, also serving as assistant safety officer and division group supervisor on the countywide joint hazmat team for San Joaquin County.

All of Escalon's firefighters have been trained as hazmat first responders and Mello said a large percentage have also had additional training in the decontamination process as well.

On Escalon's A shift, Matt Herrero is the hazmat technician, with Cassidy Bohannon the tech/specialist on Shift B. Pelot and Gerardo Preciado have the specialized training on the C shift. Mello is also a technician.

"The potential is there ... we have 65 to 85 trains down the Santa Fe tracks every day," Mello pointed out. "We have a petroleum facility right along the tracks. Training we have done in the past, our scenario has been a train vs. truck into that facility.

"We're quite a product of 'what if' for tabletop training."

Part of the department's annual inspection of businesses is learning what volatile chemicals are stored on sight, where they are and also determining how the business is laid out.

"We want to see it in a normal situation before we see it in an emergency," Mello explained.

The department is also currently working with its dispatcher to enter plans and information about the various sites into their on-board computers so firefighters will have knowledge about the facility before arriving on the scene.

Crews were called out on a hazardous materials incident just this week, responding to the Sharpe Army Depot on a hazmat spill call for mutual aid on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 23.

Mello said the same would hold true if Escalon were in a situation that required the assistance.

"Neighboring departments, outside agencies," he said. "We would have help."