BLUEFIELD — The scene of a huge tunnel fire that nearly shut down north and south travel on a major highway last year now has two new fire trucks to enhance the facility’s safety.
The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in partnership with Transportation Operation and Management, LLC, Tazewell, Va., the staffing contractor for the tunnels, will use the trucks as preliminary response until local fire and rescue arrive, VDOT spokesperson Michelle Earl said.
Last year’s tractor-trailer fire in the northbound lanes of East River Mountain Tunnel wasn’t the reason for adding the fire trucks, but it did assure department officials of the need.
In late July 2014, a burning tractor-trailer in the tunnel’s northbound section quickly shut down the entire facility. The Bluefield Fire Department, Green Valley-Glenwood Volunteer Fire Department, East River Volunteer Fire Department, Bland Fire Department, and Rocky Gap Volunteer Fire Department battled the blaze. Thick black smoke bellowing from the tunnel quickly reduced visibility to zero feet. Traffic was far south as North Carolina was impacted by the closure.
The tunnel’s personnel and people with VDOT were later praised by firefighters for evacuating the tunnel quickly after the blaze started. Posting fire engines at the East River and Big Walker Mountain Tunnels was not a direct result of the July 2014 fire, one official said.
“Last year’s truck fire incident in East River Mountain Tunnel wasn’t the push for adding the fire trucks because that effort was already in motion,” Leon Groseclose, tunnel manager for East River and Big Walker Mountain tunnels, said. “However, the incident further solidified the addition of these trucks to ensure a quicker response and better protection of motorists and the tunnels in the event of future fires.”
Efforts to purchase the trucks began summer 2013 and the effort to train personnel and procure the vehicles wrapped up in June.
The East River Mountain and Big Walker Mountain tunnels will each have a fire truck and personnel, Bryan Jones, the tunnels’ operations manager, said. Each tunnel will also have four certified fire fighters on shift at all times.
Having fire trucks and personnel on station does not eliminate the need for help from local fire departments, Jones said.
“We’re considered more like a first rapid response,” Jones said. “We’re not taking the place of the local fire departments.”
Tunnel fire fighters would get any fires contained until back up could arrive, and there are cases when they could extinguish smaller blazes, he said.
“Getting in there quickly and extinguishing it. That’s the nature of the game,” Jones stated.
Having firefighting capabilities immediately at hand could have made a difference during the July 2014 fire.
“I truly believe it would have aided us in that,” Jones said, adding the fire trucks have foam capabilities that could help keep fuel vapors down and stop a fire from re-igniting.
“We’re there for the initial response and we will work with our local fire departments, certainly,” Jones said.
Interstate 77 Big Walker Mountain Tunnel opened to traffic in 1972 and East River Mountain Tunnel in 1974. On average, approximately 30,000 vehicles per day pass through the tunnels.