Graphite furnace fire at CPI causes evacuation

No injuries reported in blaze at Palo Alto company

About 150 people were evacuated from a Palo Alto company that manufactures microwave and radio transmission devices on Monday afternoon after a water-cooling system failed, causing an abnormally hot fire in a graphite furnace, according to fire officials.

It had originally been suspected that a hydrogen tank had caught fire.

Workers at Communications and Power Industries, Inc. (CPI), located at 811 Hansen Way, had set a fire in the furnace located in the southwest corner of Building 2 to burn off residue, a normal procedure when cleaning the furnace, but a coupling that allows recirculated cooling water to keep the temperature down failed, Deputy Fire Chief Catherine Capriles said.

Residents in the Barron Park neighborhood where the company is located were not in danger and no one was injured, Capriles added.

A woman who said she has been employed at the company for many years and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said an intercom system in the building notified employees to evacuate. The woman said she could smell smoke from the second floor and as they evacuated to a parking lot.

The fire reached a temperature of 1,800 degrees, but it was lowered to 1,300 degrees in 15 minutes, the woman said.

The fire shot out of the top of the 500-gallon furnace, Capriles said. Workers quickly switched to a secondary water source from the City of Palo Alto to reduce the furnace temperature, she said.

Firefighters removed nearby small hydrogen and methane tanks as a precaution, Capriles said. Although the temperature of the furnace had gone down, at one point it rose again, she added.

A Santa Clara County hazardous-materials team was called to the scene after the blaze was put out and while firefighters worked to cool off the overheated furnace, Capriles said.

Fire crews from Palo Alto and Mountain View responded to the incident at about 1:15 p.m. Hansen Way, which was closed between El Camino Real and Page Mill Road, reopened to traffic shortly after 2:40 p.m., and workers returned to the building.

In a statement, CPI officials said the fire was located on the first floor of the company's main manufacturing building -- not in the plating shop, which is on the second floor in another part of the building. The fire "self-extinguished," according to the statement.

Firefighters remained on the scene to inspect and clean the site and declared it safe shortly after 3 p.m.

CPI has come under intense scrutiny by residents in the Barron Park neighborhood due to concerns over safety. The company, which was originally part of Varian, significantly expanded its local presence in 2006, when it consolidated its San Carlos operations in Palo Alto.

Since then, CPI on three occasions discharged hazardous materials, most recently in May 2008. That's when it released about 50 gallons of wastewater with nickel and copper into Matadero Creek.

In March, the City Council backed a plan requiring CPI to relocate the plating shop completely off campus.

Related content:

Fire quickly snuffed out at Communication & Power Industry | November 2014


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18 people like this
Posted by fatherof3
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Isn't it about time that CPI is relocated? How can a factory that poses a danger to a nearby residential neighborhood have so much power over city business that the city cannot negotiate it's relocation to a more appropriate industrial zone. Nine years ago I relocated my family to Palo Alto and a rental agent from Wilbur Properties showed me a house on Chimulus, which backs up to CPI. I obviously was a prime prospect for signing a lease in that location since I had no idea what kind of business was being run on the other side of the fence. There was no disclosure of any kind by the agent of the toxic materials being handled and used at the factory just next door. By chance I decided before we moved in to take a peak between the trees separating the house and CPI and started researching who my new neighbor was going to be. The real estate company gave me a heck of a hard time when I tried to cancel the lease. It's quite interesting that when you are buying a house the seller and both agents must provide numerous disclosures which would have included the neighboring factory and chemicals located there. But the same protections for renters does not seem to exist (please correct me if I am wrong.) I communicated to Wilbur Properties that not allowing me to cancel the lease would not bode well for their firm and they finally, begrudgingly gave me my large deposit back and cancelled the contract without out legal action having to be taken.

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