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Preparedness and special equipment make Seattle tunnels safe, say fire chiefs in Satsop

This week, the Seattle Fire Department has been in training for what might be a nightmare scenario: the possibility of fire inside a deep-bore tunnel.  A technical rescue team has been practicing at the unfinished nuclear power plant in Satsop, west of Olympia.

About a dozen firefighters are in a huddle at the base what was designed to be a cooling tower. It’s been re-purposed into one of the nation’s premiere training grounds for urban firefighters.

They’ve just set fire to a pile of wood scraps inside a pipe that’s 12-feet high.  It’s heating up fast.  Battalion Chief Scott Yurczyk says it’s about being prepared for the worst.

“Unfortunately, bad things happen, just like house fires do. We train for those all the time," he says. "So this is a unique opportunity to train for what’s a new reality in Seattle, with all of our mass transit (and the) Sound tunnel system throughout the city. A number exist already and a number are being built.”

That includes the waterfront t tunnel that will replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, where they’ll provide back up.

These tunnels are so long and narrow that the firefighters can’t drive up with all their gear. So they’re also practicing choosing the right tools they would need to pack up quickly and take with them. 

It’s a scenario familiar to Bob Shuett. He’s a firefighter from California, here to observe the drill. He watches as they load gear onto a bright orange rescue sked that could double as a stretcher to get injured people out.

“They’re going into an environment, they don't know what's in there," he says."So they're taking in cutting tools, I imagine they have torches on there. They're going to use concrete-breaking tools, lifting devices.You know, to make it real. Because we don't always know what we're getting into."

Seattle is demonstrating the use of special masks that re-circulate oxygen. Noah Katka from Fire Station 39 in Lake City is part of an elite group that’s testing them. There’s a special silver hose around his neck.

“It allows us to be in there for longer duration, rather than having the self-contained breathing devices like the ones you see over here with the tank? Those might not even last long enough for us to walk in from one end of the tunnel to the problem.”

He’s dripping with sweat from this drill, but says he’s not worried about Seattle’s tunnels. This is what they prepare for. 

Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment for KNKX with an emphasis on climate justice, human health and food sovereignty. She enjoys reporting about how we will power our future while maintaining healthy cultures and livable cities. Story tips can be sent to