Fire burns in plant linked to Oroville Dam

Published: Friday, Nov. 23, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3B

A massive fire burned Thursday in one of the hydroelectric generating units connected to Oroville Dam on the Feather River.

The fire began at 7 a.m. Thursday in the Thermalito Pumping-Generating Plant, downstream of Oroville Dam at Thermalito Forebay.

The facilities are operated by the California Department of Water Resources and are part of the State Water Project, which delivers water as far south as San Diego.

No one was injured in the fire, which is believed to have started in the control room, said California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Capt. Keith Castillo. Automatic extinguishers in the room were activated but were unable to contain the blaze.

There were 38 firefighters and 10 engines working the blaze in the five-story power plant structure on Thursday, including personnel from Cal Fire and the Oroville and Chico fire departments. Damage is likely to be extensive to the equipment in the building and the structure itself, said Ted Thomas, a DWR spokesman.

At one point, firefighters had to retreat because equipment began to collapse and heavy smoke caused zero visibility. The cause of the fire is unknown and under investigation, Castillo said.

"It'll burn for the next several days," Castillo said. "We're going to be out there … doing different operational periods, rotating engines in and out."

The unit is not producing energy, but water diverted from Oroville Dam is continuing to move through the facility, Thomas said.

No power outages are expected, nor any water shortages for customers of the State Water Project.

"We will, of course, lose some power generation," said Thomas. "Therefore, we'll probably have to buy more power for the State Water Project."

The Thermalito Pumping-Generating Plant produces hydroelectricity from water released from Oroville Dam. It also can pump water back to the dam to be reused at the Hyatt Powerplant inside the dam. The affected power plant is off Nelson Avenue east of the city of Oroville and due north of the Oroville Municipal Airport.

The fire is the latest safety incident involving the State Water Project. In July 2009, a giant steel bulkhead blew out deep inside Oroville Dam, injuring five workers. And in February 2007, two divers employed by DWR died while inspecting a portion of the California Aqueduct in Merced County.

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