Utilities chief provides Colorado Springs council with update on Drake fire

May 13, 2014 Updated: May 13, 2014 at 7:20 am
photo - Firefighters stand watch over the Drake Power Plant Tuesday, May 6, 2014, as crews prepare to begin the fire investigation of the blaze that ripped through the coal power plant Monday morning.   (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Firefighters stand watch over the Drake Power Plant Tuesday, May 6, 2014, as crews prepare to begin the fire investigation of the blaze that ripped through the coal power plant Monday morning. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Colorado Springs firefighters and police officers made split-second decisions that got the Martin Drake Power Plant fire knocked down quickly, the CEO of Colorado Springs Utilities told the City Council on Monday.

Utilities chief Jerry Forte recounted the details of the fire, including the thoughts of one firefighter who climbed to the roof the morning of the May 5 blaze.

"He said he wasn't sure if he was going to come off that roof," Forte said in an update to the council a week after a fire broke out in the city's downtown coal-fired power plant. Forte added that first responders were on scene in five minutes and that no one was injured.

"They used a technique they had just trained on and were able to save the structure and minimize the damage," Forte said.

Half of the 90 employees assigned to Drake will be back to work Tuesday. They will work with contractors to assess damage and design a restoration plan, Forte said. The rest of the employees will temporarily work at other Utilities properties. Drake's electrical wiring took the hardest hit and will be the area that needs the most attention, said Dan Higgins, Utilities interim general manager of energy supply.

"There will be miles and miles of wires to replace . ." he said. "In some cases wiring was just plain melted right through."

Utilities has hired consulting engineers to assess the structural damage, has begun preliminary electrical evaluations and has had visits from the insurance adjustors, Higgins said.

Utilities also hired a cleanup crew, additional security and installed additional lights.

Cost estimates on the contracts, security and lights were not available Monday, a Utilities spokesman said.

Forte said he will have more details for the council May 21 when it meets as the Colorado Springs Utilities Board.

Forte and Higgins credited evacuation and safety drills as the reason no employee was injured.

"The speed at which employees were able to evacuate is absolutely the reason why we didn't have tragedy at the plant," Higgins said.

"There is value in those drills."

Firefighters determined that lubricating oil that hit hot steam pipes caused the fire. But the investigation as to how the oil escaped is ongoing, Forte said.

Drake has three generation units called No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7. Unit No. 5 is where the fire erupted and the area of the plant that was most damaged. But it could be two weeks before Utilities knows the full extent of the damage and cost to make repairs.

"I've had a lot of questions in the last week on what firefighters faced," Fire Chief Christopher Riley said. "The courage and skill was pretty phenomenal, and I don't use that term lightly."

Drake provides about a third of the community's power. Now, Utilities will rely more on the Ray Nixon, Birdsall and Front Range plants. It also will buy fuel from other Front Range power companies. At Drake, electricity is produced at 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. It could cost about 4 cents per kilowatt hour to buy the fuel to produce it. The City Council may consider an electric rate increase this month to cover the increased cost of buying fuel.

Forte was asked by a council member if there is a lesson learned.

"A lot of the lessons learned are still to come," he said. "We are still trying to sort out what we need to do to get this up and running."

Forte said Utilities will prepare a report with an assessment of what went wrong and a plan for improvement.

"There will be a formal after-action report, and we will do everything we can to make sure it never happens again," Forte said.

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