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Tragic Hydroelectric Generating Station Fire in August 2020


Industrial fires continue to be a major risk in the electrical generation industry, causing severe damage and financial loss to companies. Infrequently, these fires also result in loss of life or injuries to employees or members of the public. A tragic fire at a hydroelectric station in India in the summer of 2020 resulted in the deaths of nine employees and is the most recent event to underline the hazards of industrial fires. The event was reported in the local news media including a video of the fire[1].

The fire broke out late one evening and burned into the early morning in the underground powerhouse that was equipped with a 1.6 km long exit route. Site personnel manually fought the fire with carbon dioxide (C02) extinguishers for over 20 minutes. According to news articles, the local fire brigade was called 90 minutes after detecting the fire. The fire took more than 100 fire fighters over 12 hours to extinguish. In addition to the nine lives lost, the fire is expected to have caused millions of dollars of physical damage and a lengthy interruption to power generation at the facility. Fifteen personnel escaped through the emergency tunnel and six others were saved by a rescue team.

News articles indicate that the fire started inside an electrical panel and grew from there; however, a formal root cause analysis has not yet been made publically available. It was reported that the equipment did not shutdown as anticipated by protective controls.

This tragic event highlights several key loss control lessons that could have prevented the incident or reduced its severity.

The installation, configuration, maintenance, and testing of electrical protection devices is critically important to de-energize equipment that is suffering a fault and thereby prevent a fire and/or damage in other equipment.

  • Protection should be in accordance to the latest engineering standards, which may require periodic updating from the original installation.
  • Testing should be in accordance to IEEE, NETA, and OEM guidelines.
  • Defects should be promptly addressed.

Electrical switchgear should be included in a Managed Maintenance program including predictive and preventative maintenance activities to prevent short circuits.

  • Infrared (thermography) can be used to look for hotspots on operating equipment.
  • Periodic PM should be performed on breakers and electrical buses during shutdowns to check for cleanliness, insulation, tight connections, and proper operation.

Plant operators should request assistance from a trained Emergency Response Team or professional fire department immediately upon discovery of a fire. Delayed firefighting response can permit a fire to grow to catastrophic proportions before an effective response can be mounted

  • A central emergency number should be widely posted.
  •  Emergency training and safety briefs for visitors should emphasis prompt reporting of all accidents, emergencies, fires, and spills.

The Plant Emergency Response Plan and operator emergency training should provide for contingencies when safety devices fail and equipment does not trip or de-energize as expected.

  • Operator training should include how to manually disconnect and shutdown equipment
  • The plan should designate a specific role for calling the fire department when a fire is detected.

Staff who are not trained or equipped to fight a major fire should evacuate to a safe location as soon as possible once a fire is discovered.

  • Fires in underground facilities present an extreme life safety risk due to the dangers from smoke inhalation. Special planning is necessary to ensure safe refuge locations are available, and/or that egress routes are practical, lighted, and ventilated with clean air.
  • Egress routes and refuge locations should be included in periodic checks to ensure systems and supplies are in working condition, and use of this infrastructure should be included in emergency training.
  • Operators are often trained to fight small fires. That training should be renewed annually and should provide instruction on when to not to fight a fire.
Marsh Advisory has consultants who can provide advice on industrial loss control practices. Contact your local Marsh office if you are interested in these services.