Safety Plan: Magnesium Fire Averted

Thursday, July 20, 2017 @ 05:07 PM gHale

Safety measures implemented after a fire last winter was one of the elements that prevented a second major magnesium-fueled blaze at a Northern Michigan die cast factory late Saturday, officials said.

Firefighters from the Resort/Bear Creek Fire Department got the call at 10:30 p.m. Saturday to ZD Metal Products on Fochtman Industrial Drive northeast of Petoskey, MI, to a report of a magnesium fire in the plant, said Fire Chief Al Welsheimer.

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Magnesium fires are difficult to fight because water cannot be used to extinguish them.

Magnesium burns at high temperatures, with a bright, white light. Using water on magnesium fires causes the fire to burn more intensely.

The fire was the result of a malfunction in one of the company’s die-casting machines, Welsheimer said. He said the machine failed to stop flowing molten magnesium into a mold when it was supposed to stop, causing the hot metal to overflow to the surrounding area. He said the molten metal immediately ignited plastic hoses, wiring and other material in the area of the machine.

Workers quickly called 911 and then worked to contain the fire before smoke in the area forced them to evacuate.

When fire crews arrived, they entered the building and finished putting out the fire and removed from the building the material that was still burning, Welsheimer said.

Damage ended up limited to the machine where the malfunction took place and a 4-foot-by-6-foot area around the machine, Welsheimer said. Seven employees were on site when the fire broke out.

Employees and firefighters used a combination of sand and a special encapsulating agent specifically designed for fighting magnesium fires to put the fire out, Welsheimer said.

He said one employee ended up evaluated at the factory site by Emmet County EMS crews for possible smoke inhalation and released at the scene.

The same business experienced a major magnesium-fueled fire Feb. 25. That fire started in the facility’s shipping and receiving area when a still-hot piece of scrap ignited boxes filled with magnesium material. The fire ultimately spread to three magnesium filled semi-trailers in the loading area and caused extensive damage to the shipping and receiving area and other parts of the facility as well.

On Saturday, shortly after hearing the dispatch, Welsheimer called for mutual aid from multiple area fire departments, but ultimately, their services were mostly not needed.

Measures implemented at the company in consultation with fire department officials following the February fire played a big role in keeping Saturday’s fire from becoming a major incident, Welsheimer said.

“A lot of things came into play,” Welsheimer said. “We met extensively with (company officials). They implemented several things.”

He said measures at the plant included purchasing numerous dry-agent fire extinguishers, positioning boxes of sand around the plant, keeping a sand application machine and a supply of dry sand on site, and installing a system of fire doors designed to close to close and isolate sections of the plant in the event of a fire.

One factor that will be looked at following Saturday’s incident is the fire doors, the chief said. The current design has them closing upon the activation of a heat sensing element — similar to a fire sprinkler system. However, Welsheimer said a better option that will be investigated is an alarm system that employees can activate that would close the fire doors before heat sensors would.

Welsheimer said crews were expecting production to resume quickly at the plant, except at the machine that malfunctioned.

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