May 5, 2014 Updated: May 6, 2014 at 9:34 am
Officials give update Tuesday on Drake Power Plant fire roughly 24 hours after initial fire call
Firefighters were expected to remain on scene at the Martin Drake Power Plant well into Tuesday to investigate the cause of a four-alarm fire that ripped through the coal-fired plant Monday morning.
Beyond damage to the plant's infrastructure, which is thought to be substantial, finding alternative energy sources for Drake, which generates about one-third of the city's power, won't likely be cheap for the city or ratepayers.
The fire, which erupted around 9:40 a.m. Monday, sent a huge plume of black smoke over downtown Colorado Springs and prompted the evacuation of 62 employees. Voluntary evacuation notices were sent out to people in a three-block area of the plant.
The fire also injured one contract employee who was treated for minor injuries and released, according to fire and Colorado Springs Utilities officials.
The blaze also resulted in a brief power loss for about 22,000 customers, and shut down the plant.
"It's going to be inoperable for quite some time," said Colorado Springs Fire Chief Chris Riley at a news briefing Monday evening. He didn't have an estimate for how long it would be down.
"We've been dealing with smoldering fires throughout the facility for the last several hours," Riley said. It's probably going to take us quite a long time to completely extinguish, but the fire, for the most part, is isolated."
To make up for the loss of power at Drake, power is being rerouted from other power plants, including the Ray Nixon,the Front Range and Birdsall power plants. Use of Birdsall on North Nevada Avenue is limited to peak demand days, and takes eight to 10 hours to boot up.
It produces about one-fifth of what the Drake plant produces, according to Utilities officials.
"Right now it looks like power generation from the other facilities will able to meet all the needs of our customers during this hot spell we're going to be anticipating here in the next week or so," said John Romero, general manager for energy services at Monday evening's briefing.
Acquiring power from the grid is generally more expensive than generating power, but he said it was too early to assess any kind of cost, including higher rates, that could be associated with the fire.
Bill Cherrier, chief financial officer with Utilities, said that depending on the need, it's normal for the utility to or buy or sell electricity on any given day. "Obviously, we'll be buying more," he said.
Drake, a 254-megawatt coal-fired plant, provides about a third of the community's power through three boilers: Units 5, 6 and 7.
The fire appears to have been in the vicinity of Unit 5, the smallest and oldest of the boilers, built in 1962 and capable of generating 46 megawatts of power. At the height of the fire, flames were visible on the southern side of the plant, which is the location of unit No. 5.
Patrice Lehermeier, Colorado Springs Utilities spokeswoman, confirmed that the fire was contained to one of the units and said the other two were shut off after the fire began. Utilities also released pressure from the boilers so they wouldn't explode during the emergency.
At one point as many as two-thirds of the city's fire units, in addition to eight of its mutual aid partners responded to the fire, said Riley. Colorado Springs police went on accident alert status from about 10 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., while they assisted with traffic control around the plant.
While firefighters were working to douse the fire, a voluntary evacuation notice was sent to businesses and neighborhoods in a 3-block radius of the plant. Those voluntary evacuations were lifted about 1:30 p.m., said Lehermeier,
Firefighters will not release information about the cause and origin of the fire until an investigation is completed. The extent of the damage was also unknown, according to utilities officials. Romero said, that as of Monday night, they had not been allowed into the building to assess the damage.
Dave Green, who has worked as an electrician at the plant for eight years, said he learned of the fire when he heard people yelling, "Get out!"
"The evacuation sirens started going off, and everybody made sure all their partners were together," he said.
Green said he did not want to speculate on what could have caused the fire.
"One thing probably led to another, but I don't know exactly what," he said. "I do know that we thrive on safety, in terms of fire codes and evacuation procedures. We have frequent drills."
Monday's blaze was the second fire at Drake in 12 years. In 2002, a breaker on a large fan failed, sparking a blaze that shut down half of the plant for several weeks, forcing the utility to buy power from other sources.
The fire may add to what has been a hot debate for more than two years. The Colorado Springs City Council, which acts as utilities' board of directors, has been pondering whether to keep Drake or scrap it in favor of cleaner, more efficient power sources.
Utilities officials have framed the decision in terms of cost, saying Drake continues to be the cheapest, most reliable source of power for ratepayers.
City Council president Keith King said maintenance costs have been a concern.
"Obviously we're very concerned about our employees' safety," he said, but added that it's hard to say whether the fire will affect the debate.
"I don't think it will change the debate much unless it's a huge expenditure to replace the turbine," he said. "We'll just have to see how extensive the fire damage is."
Gazette reporters Debbie Kelley, Jakob Rodgers, Dave Philipps, Andrea Sinclair, Rich Laden and Lisa Walton contributed to this report.