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Big Blaze on the Prairie

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Today many farms are industrial in scale, using chemicals to help improve yields. By the time fruits, vegetables, or grains have made it to the shelves, these chemicals are trace enough to offer little risk. However, in larger quantities, these chemicals can be toxic. The city of Minot grappled with these effects when a fire started in a chemical warehouse on April 4th, 1987. The event made national news and the New York and LA Times reported about it on this date.

The fire began at 11am in a truck inside the warehouse. The blaze grew so big that its effects were not contained to the warehouse. As fireballs flew up to 40 feet, the winds carried toxic fumes into the city and even across the Canadian border, 50 miles to the north.

The warehouse contained many farming chemicals, two of which were the insecticides parathion and malathion, which can be toxic to people. However, Mike Vorachek, the state’s hazardous material coordinator, said the chemicals shouldn’t cause more than respiratory irritation. Perhaps because of this, they recommended evacuation for people in the path of the fumes, but did not require it.

10,000 people did choose to leave, but about half of them returned home that same night. Anyone who came in contact with the fumes was advised to shower and stay inside.

Firefighters used multiple strategies to put out the fire. Many chemicals had spilled outside the warehouse, so at first they used water to direct the chemicals to a drainage ditch. After this step, they used foam to contain the fire. It was officially contained by 4pm, though it continued to smolder for some time.

By the next day, state officials were able to test objects that had come into contact with the smoke and found no trace of the herbicides. State Health Officer Robert Wentz felt confident that the danger level was low, but affected residents were still advised to clean things like toys and utensils.

When all was said and done, 37 people had sustained injuries, but the short-term impact on people’s lives went away fairly quickly. It’s harder to say what long-term effects the chemical spill may have had -- one of the many reasons that safety precautions with chemicals are so important.

Dakota Datebook written by Lucid Thomas

Sources:

https://www.nytimes.com/1987/04/05/us/20-hurt-and-10000-flee-fumes-on-north-dakota-chemical-blaze.html

https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1987-04-05-mn-362-story.html

https://apnews.com/article/481b64064e8d5739ae454c7e09fd8b7d

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