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A tale of two fertilizer fires

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HOUSTON (FOX 26) -

As the blast shattered town of West gets about the business of recovery and the necessity of grief, focus has turned to the cause of the devastating explosion and the manner in which volunteer firefighters attacked the blaze which likely triggered it.

Comparisons are being made with the July 2009 fire in Bryan at the El Dorado fertilizer plant. There flames ignited more than 500 tons of ammonium nitrate, the same explosive material stockpiled in West.

Instead of attacking that blaze, Bryan firefighters backed away, evacuating more than 80,000 residents and allowing the blaze to burn itself out.

The plant did not explode.

Four years ago, Bryan Fire Chief Mike Donoho explained the tactic.

"If we put water on a fire like this it creates more of a problem. The chemicals are water reactive. It spreads the fire and in some cases it can intensify to the point of explosion. We're happy a majority of the chemical was consumed by the fire itself," said Donoho.

Details of how firefighters in West contended with the plant fire have not been released and there's been no definitive finding of what caused the explosion

In Houston, long time fertilizer manufacturer Jerry Stoller speculates the volunteers in West would have been better served to match the strategy used in Bryan.

"They should have been versed in the explosiveness of this material and let the fire burn and get everybody out of the area," said Stoller.

Public information requests for the location of all ammonium nitrate stockpiles have been challenged by the Office of the Texas State Chemist, which means it will be at least 40 business days before a list is revealed, if then.

Stoller, whose company operates globally, says he knows of no substantial

supply of ammonium nitrate stored in the greater Houston area.

Export import figures from the USDA reveal that more than 1.3 million tons of ammonium nitrate came in and out of the country last year, a portion almost certainly through the Port of Houston.

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