A stubborn fire on a Cook Inlet natural gas platform near Nikiski on Thursday morning triggered the evacuation of four workers but caused no injuries, authorities say.
Firefighting vessels continued spraying water at the Hilcorp Alaska LLC platform into early afternoon, and responders through the day watched for signs of pollution, though none were evident as of late Thursday afternoon.
"We're encouraged by what we're seeing at this point," Hilcorp spokeswoman Lori Nelson said in late afternoon from a command center established in Nikiski. "No spill, no sheen, minimal debris."
The fire started at about 7:30 a.m. in the area of the platform crew's living quarters, according to an update from the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council that started off with the words "THIS IS NOT A DRILL."
A Nikiski-based Hilcorp helicopter evacuated the four employees just before 8 a.m., Nelson said. The U.S. Coast Guard said it received the first reports of the fire around 8:30 a.m.
The fire destroyed the quarters but doesn't appear to have involved any gas-processing equipment, she said. The flow of gas was shut down remotely after the alarm sounded.
By midday, flames and black smoke that shocked witnesses earlier in the morning gave way to smoldering embers and gray smoke. The fire was initially reported out by 1:20 p.m., Coast Guard spokesman Shawn Eggert said, though firefighting and response vessels stayed at the platform through the day.
Responders reported full containment of the fire in an update issued just after 6:30 p.m. Thursday from the command center. Officials said they planned to monitor the fire through the night.
A full investigation to determine the cause of the fire is underway, according to an update from Hilcorp, the Coast Guard and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. Investigators will board the platform once it's secured.
The platform, in the North Middle Ground Shoal Field 7 to 8 miles from shore near Nikiski, is one of 16 in Cook Inlet. Hilcorp owns 12 of them.
Louise Nutter, who lives in Nikiski between three waterfront heliports, spotted flames and smoke rising from the Baker platform just after she took her first-grader to school.
"You certainly don't ever want to see the view of smoke coming off an oil platform like that," Nutter said. "I know what it looks like when there's a flare, when they burn off the pressure, but I have never seen black smoke billowing off the platform before."
She spent the next few minutes texting furiously with a friend who works as a crane operator on the Baker platform and was relieved to hear that he was on his two weeks off and in Louisiana.
"He told me everybody got off safe, and that's what I wanted to hear," Nutter said.
The Coast Guard, DEC and Hilcorp set up a unified command at Nikiski. Officials established a 5-mile-radius no-fly zone at 5,000 feet and a 2-mile maritime safety zone around the platform.
Cook Inlet Spill Prevention and Response Inc., which provides response on behalf of member companies including Hilcorp, dispatched two vessels to fight the fire, according to the Cook Inlet advisory council, or CIRCAC. The primary fireboat was the Ocean Marine Shipping Inc. offshore vessel Discovery. Other vessels included an oil-spill response vessel, the Endeavor, along with an assist tug.
Efforts focused on containing and isolating flames from a diesel day tank that serves as the fuel supply for a standby generator. The platform held 10,000 gallons of diesel, according to the Coast Guard.
The Nikiski Fire Department remained on standby for much of the day.
The Coast Guard diverted a Hercules HC-130 crew and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew to fly over the platform.
A representative of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration said that agency is monitoring the situation.
There have been at least two other Cook Inlet platform fires, according to CIRCAC spokeswoman Lynda Giguere. There was a fire on the King Salmon platform in 2002 and on the Steelhead platform in 1987.
The Baker platform, installed in 1965, was owned by Unocal, which was later acquired by Chevron. That company in 2012 sold its assets to Hilcorp, according to Cathy Foerster, one of three commissioners with the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The commission in 2012 gave Chevron permission to abandon Baker's oil wells -- the platform had been in shutdown mode known as "lighthousing" for some time -- but Hilcorp later that year opted to rework the platform for that single gas well, Foerster said.
Hilcorp won't know the full extent of the damage or whether the fire came in contact with any processing equipment until first responders tell them it's safe to approach the platform, Nelson said.
Nutter said once it became clear nobody was hurt, her friend turned his worries elsewhere.
"He's mostly concerned about his three pairs of work boots and flat-screen TV," she said. "He bought that flat-screen TV himself and put it out there. He's got to live out there for two weeks a month."