Amid a flurry of severe thunderstorm activity Wednesday in southwest Arkansas, a lightning strike near Taylor ignited a saltwater-filled, fiberglass storage tank at a local oil and storage refinery, leaving U.S. Hwy. 371 closed for hours as first responders blocked drivers from potential danger.
The incident was first reported at 4:23 p.m. after passersby witnessed the strike and the ensuing flames and thick black smoke. The Maverick Natural Resources plant is located less than a mile south of Taylor’s city limits.
“We saw the lightning that probably struck it,” said Kacie Hatch in a Facebook posting. “It was pretty big.”
The eyewitness also posted a video and photo of the incident.
Although no one was injured, the blaze could have resulted in a far worse disaster than actually occurred, according to the county emergency office.
Just before the lightning bolt struck, an oil tanker driver readied his vehicle to offload its highly flammable cargo into one of the six nearby 440-barrel storage tanks. Just as he turned the valve on the tanker's hose, the freak weather event occurred.
“He said he heard the clap from the lightning, looked up, and saw the fiberglass tank smoking, then ruptured into flames,” said Larry Taylor, director of the Columbia County Office of Emergency Management (OEM).
The driver then immediately killed his truck ignition, unhooked the tanker hose and quickly darted across Hwy. 371 to distance himself from the flames some yards away.
“Luckily, the heat did not burn the hose, and the saltwater tank stayed within the berm as it burned,” Taylor added. “He did a good thing by turning the truck off. If he hadn’t, it would have continued filling up the tank, spilled over, then probably caught on fire and caused a chain reaction [explosion].”
The oil tanks also worried emergency workers. Some were mostly empty, but some others were at least partially-filled, representing an extreme hazard.
“A tank with less oil can actually be more dangerous than a full tank," Taylor said. "With all those fumes contained in such a big volume, it can ignite in a hurry.”
The saltwater tank's flames never jumped to the other oil containers or the nearby truck. The blaze eventually burned itself out as heavy its fuel source dissipated. The combination of a fiberglass outer tank and oil remnants in the water kept the blaze burning for approximately two hours. During that time, a section of Hwy. 371 near the plant was closed and local officials rerouted traffic.
The lanes were again opened around 7: 30 p.m. Wednesday once the smoke had receded and no threat remained.
Emergency departments from nearby Springhill, La. – located roughly 10 miles from Taylor across the state line – aided members of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, Taylor Police and Fire Departments, Walker Creek Volunteer Fire Department, Bussey-Sharman Volunteer Fire Department, OEM, Entergy, and others.
The first responders did not approach the flames since the nearby tanker truck and the oil containers presented too great of a danger.
On Thursday, the Maverick Natural Resources plant was again open and operational. The burned out saltwater tank still stood, but it was heavily scarred and blackened from the fire.
The OEM director was just thankful the blaze did not morph into an all-out disaster.
“The Good Lord was looking out for the driver and everybody else,” he said. “We got lucky.”
The storm system also caused damage within the city of Taylor itself. On Thursday morning, numerous residents awoke to sights of fallen trees throughout the 1-square mile town.
At Powell Street, located at the town’s northern entrance, two homes directly across from one another barely missed significant damage after large hardwoods tumbled across each property’s driveway and lay just feet away from the main structures.
"I think they fell around 3:30 a.m.," one resident said.
Trees had also broken and fallen near First Landmark Church along N. Wilson Street and near Taylor High School on Arkansas Hwy. 160 just one block away.
During the peak hours of Wednesday storms, trees also fell and blocked U.S. Hwy. 82 near the Union County border, at Hwy. 79 near Albemarle, and along County Roads 11, 7, 1, and 40. Numerous power lines were also reported down, with one incident along Hwy. 79 in Emerson catching the trees on fire.
The damage from the thunderstorms left hundreds in Columbia County without power on Thursday morning. The most affected areas were northeast and southwest of Magnolia near McNeil, Taylor, and Emerson. According to Entergy, approximately 550 customers were still without power at around 8 a.m. By noon, many homes were back on the grid.