Gulf Oil fire in 1979 created smoke show seen miles around


They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

That was certainly true on Aug. 5, 1979, after lightning struck a storage tank at the Gulf Oil Refinery on Toledo’s east side, creating a huge fire and billowing black smoke that could be seen up to 50 miles away.

That meant it was visible as far as Ann Arbor to the north, Findlay to the south, Sandusky to the east, and Defiance to the west. That’s a lot of smoke.

The 80,000-barrel tank contained about 1 million gallons of unleaded fuel. Standing about 40 feet high and 120 feet wide, the tank was about one-quarter full when the fire started shortly after 1:30 p.m. Within four minutes of the initial call, a fire chief, 17 firefighters, and a foam-and-hose unit were on the scene. It took firefighters from Toledo, Oregon, and the Ohio Air National Guard nearly two days to put out the fire. This Blade archive photo shows one of those firefighters silhouetted against the flames.

The fire burned so hot, paint blistered on fire apparatus sitting 100 yards away. Off-duty Toledo firemen were called in to battle the blaze, and a half dozen homes nearby were evacuated as a precaution. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries, and only a few firefighters were transported to St. Charles Hospital in Oregon for heat exhaustion.

Damage estimates from the fire totaled $1 million. After burning for 46 hours, the fire was finally extinguished on a Tuesday, and workers began the cleanup the following day.

The best news of the story was the safety of a nearby tank, which was 100 feet away and held up to 3.36 million gallons of gasoline. Thanks to a shift in wind and the work of the fire departments, that unit never caught on fire.

It wasn’t the last time a large explosion shook the refinery. Less than two years later, a faulty tube inside a reboiler heater unit split, exposing high-octane gasoline blend to flames heating the boiler. That fire, in February, 1981, also resulted in $1 million worth of damage.

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