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Burning locomotive blocks roads

Train engine fire presents unique challenge to Cheney fire department personnel


Last updated 11/7/2019 at 10:25am

CHENEY – Fire Chief Tom Jenkins wasn’t fazed too much by the call of a car fire that came over his radio around 11:30 a.m. last Saturday morning.

“I was thinking, no problem, my guys can handle it,” Jenkins said.

That changed a few minutes later when he heard crews were still dealing with the issue, and that it wasn’t a car fire — it was a fire in the locomotive of a westbound Burlington Northern Santa Fe train. The three-engine train — two in the front pulling and one at the rear pushing — consisted of 100 cars containing over 14,000 pounds of soybeans bound for Centralia, Wash. and was passing through Cheney when the engineer in the No. 1 engine noticed smoke coming from engine No. 2.

The engineer managed to get the train stopped, with the two front engines positioned on the tracks southeast of 1st Street between Washington and Lincoln streets. The train was now blocking two major county arterials, Cheney-Spangle and Cheney-Plaza roads.

Jenkins said Spokane County Fire District 3 crews from Station 33 nearby responded almost immediately, with Cheney crews arriving onsite shortly after and taking command by asking for more resources. Cheney Lt. John Hanke said his crew in the department’s new main attack engine was actually at Station 33’s training facility when the call came in, and was advised to proceed to Mullinix Road and access the site from there along a frontage road next to the tracks.

The route brought them closer to the involved engine, but before extinguishing work could begin, Jenkins said several issues needed to be addressed. The first, after stopping the train, was neutralizing its power. With each locomotive hooked together electrically, it meant the entire train was energized – a situation that had to be remedied before applying water.

“It would be like pouring water on your power lines outside your house,” Jenkins said.

Discussions with the engineer and two other BNSF officials onsite resulted in the crews turning off circuit breakers at each engine, and the engineer then decoupled the No. 1 engine from the rest of the train and pulled it safely ahead about 100 yards. While this was going on, Jenkins contacted Greater Spokane Emergency Management officials and asked they release a region-wide alert about the incident, along with contacting Cheney police department dispatch to do the same locally.

The second thing Jenkins said they needed to do was establish what exactly the train was carrying. A food product such as soybeans was one of the best scenarios officials hoped to hear.

“We’ve seen (trains) carrying military explosives, C4, on board,” he added.

Once all of this was done, firefighters began extinguishing the smoldering fire, using Class B foam and water. Hanke said the city’s new engine’s capabilities led to the use of only five gallons of the foam because the pressure coming through new hose was more intense and allowed for better concentration of the chemical.

Jenkins added that in hindsight, the water would likely have been enough, but using the foam was an extra precaution.

“It probably wasn’t necessary but we knew we were dealing with some kind of fuel,” he added.

Once the fire was extinguished, officials did calculations to determine if the two remaining usable engines could safely tow the train away from Cheney to another location down the tracks where the burned locomotive could be evaluated and the two main county arterials reopened. Jenkins said it was determined this could be done, but the decision had to be made by another BNSF official who was en route to the site.

“Once the super (superintendent) showed up, he looked it over and was confident there was enough power,” Jenkins said. “But there was concern about the airlines being burnt on No. 2, and if they were, they wouldn’t be able to use the brakes on the front and back.”

Jenkins said it took 15-20 minute to check and test the system, after which the train was eventually moved to the new location, re-opening Cheney-Spangle and Cheney-Plaza roads. The incident was essentially over by roughly 2:30 p.m.

BNSF’s director of public affairs for Washington, Gus Melonas, said the incident delayed four other trains. No injuries occurred and no environmental threats took place.

“We’re investigating the situation further,” Melonas added.

Jenkins said BNSF officials onsite felt pretty confident the cause of the fire was a fuel line leak. Once the locomotive was shut down, dropping the fuel pressure, the fire wasn’t as intense.

Hanke said he talked to BNSF officials on Tuesday, who put the damage estimate at $100,000.

“They haven’t started to repair it yet, but that was a rough estimate,” he added.

John McCallum can be reached at


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