On Wednesday night, a fire at a sulfur storage mound at Port Manatee, Florida sent five people to the hospital and forced authorities to temporarily close U.S. Highway 41. It was the second fire at the site in two weeks.
In 2015, one of Port Manatee's tenants leased property for a new two-acre sulfur storage mound on the east side of the port, about 1,000 feet west of the highway. The mound caught fire on April 17, destroying a dump truck and forcing the evacuation of nearby buildings. It ignited again on Wednesday night, and five people were hospitalized due to smoke inhalation after they attempted to put out the fire, according to local media.
Sulfur fires can pose an additional hazard to first responders: the release of hydrogen sulfide gas, which may be produced when the sulfur is heated. The gas is both toxic and highly flammable, and its presence can lower the flash point of sulfur dust.
Fire crews were actively engaged in combating the blaze shortly after it was reported, and it was extinguished by midnight. Michael Rampino, chief of the North River Fire District, told media that his crews used a drone with an infrared camera to identify hot spots and track the smoke plume from the fire.
Wednesday’s blaze likely broke out when a sweeping machine made contact with a metal object, creating sparks and igniting flammable dust, according to Frank Vanelli, a spokesman for the storage facility's operator. The previous fire is believed to have been caused by a truck driving over dry sulfur; the truck driver took his vehicle outside of a marked area that is kept damp for safety, and the friction from the tires ignited loose material.
“The public has nothing to be alarmed about, corrective actions are being taken and we will work closely with the local authorities, and we will not reopen until that has been handled,” Vanelli told local TV news.
The facility will be closed until a new water irrigation system is installed, which will help reduce the risk of ignition. A spokeswoman for Port Manatee told reporters that the port authority is looking into additional safety measures.