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Vehicle Fire In Tunnel At Zion National Park Was A Costly One


Entrance to the tunnel as seen from the Canyon Overlook Trail. Photo by Ken Lund via flickr and Creative Commons.

Emergency responders train for difficult situations they hope will never actually occur, but one such call came in last week at Zion National Park: A vehicle was on fire inside the 1.1 mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel … and this set of wheels turned out to be anything but ordinary.

Any fire in the confined space of a tunnel presents plenty of challenges, but the length and location of this one ups the ante. The Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel is located along a 10-mile scenic drive that twists and turns up steep switchbacks from Zion Canyon, near the park’s south entrance, before winding its way down to the area’s East Entrance.

Not Just An Ordinary Tunnel

Construction on the tunnel began in the late 1920's, and when it was dedicated on July 4, 1930, it was the longest tunnel of its type in the United States. Among its unusual features are six “gallery windows” in the rock walls, which allow glimpses of the scenery outside—although safety issues and current traffic volumes no longer allow motorists to stop in the tunnel to enjoy the view!

Created during construction, the windows allowed rock and soil from the boring and blasting to be pushed out of the bore and cleared from the work area. The openings also supplied much-needed ventilation and light for crews working inside the tunnel, and last week that fresh air proved to be valuable indeed for a pair of park visitors.

Training By Emergency Responders Pays Off

Just after 5 p.m. on Monday, May 21, authorities received a report that a vehicle was on fire inside the tunnel, and the park’s structural fire engine company responded along with the Springdale/Rockville fire department and two wildland fire engines.

A Type Six engine with a 250-gallon tank and a pump capacity of 150 gallons per minute entered the tunnel with two firefighters wearing self-contained breathing apparatus. A second Type Six engine, two Type One engines, and the wildland engines provided backup for the initial attack engine.

According to a park spokesperson, the NPS engine company conducts yearly training sessions in the tunnel and had determined that a smaller engine would provide better access and egress from the tunnel in the event of a vehicle fire.

This Was No Ordinary Car Fire

Firefighters with the initial attack engine were able to successfully contain and extinguish the flames which had fully engulfed the vehicle, which they then discovered had been a 1964 Cobra sports car valued at $800,000.

In addition to concerns about the potential for multiple vehicles and people trapped inside the tunnel, responders were aware that wooden timbers provide structural support and prevent rock fall in the interior of the tunnel. Examination of the area after the emergency was resolved found that a protective coating along the walls in the area of the fire had protected the wooden timbers.

The two occupants of the car had found relatively safe refuge in two of the tunnel’s gallery windows, and were transported by ambulance to a local hospital for examination and treatment. All other vehicles and people were able to exit the tunnel prior to initial attack efforts. The tunnel and road were closed for two-and-a-half hours as a result of the incident.

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