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CLINTON — A mechanical failure late Sunday afternoon set fire to a locomotive alongside Interstate 90 near Clinton, spouting flames high into the air.

The Montana Rail Link crew stopped the train of empty oil tankers at around 4:30 p.m., according to MRL’s Jim Lewis. They disconnected the burning Burlington Northern Santa Fe locomotive and moved the cars several hundred yards to the east and out of harm's way.

The fuel shut-off system on the engine was engaged, “resulting in the fire being extinguished,” Lewis said.

No other cars were damaged and no injuries were reported.

Clinton Rural Fire responded but didn't put water to the flames. The idea of evacuating the town of Clinton was considered if the crew had been unable to uncouple the burning locomotive from the oil cars.

Clinton fire personnel couldn’t be reached Monday. Chris Newman, chief of Missoula Rural Fire, said responders from his department were dispatched on automatic aid. By the time they arrived the fire was out and "it was basically a non-incident."

"I would say from (Clinton Rural's) standpoint, we’re always looking at the potential, so if this thing did become a significant fire with that engine and they couldn’t get it disconnected, you could have a pretty toxic cloud of smoke over that area," Newman said. "Then it gets into hazmat type of situation. I can see where that first 10-15 minutes could have been a little harried."

MRL currently averages five to six crude trains a week from the Bakken oil fields, according to Lewis. That's up significantly from just a couple of years ago.

Adriane Beck, director of emergency services for Missoula County, said it appears the response was handled appropriately.

"If there had been a need to evacuate, we would have worked with Clinton FD to leverage all available resources and tools to ensure quick notification of the public," Beck said in an email. "This typically includes law enforcement and fire officials doing direct notifications in conjunction with mass notification (Smart 911), and EAS," the county's emergency alert system. 

"If evacuation had been necessary, we would have also worked with the Red Cross to establish a shelter for displaced residents." 

The temperature when the fire broke out was in the mid-teens with high winds in the area, which wouldn't have made evacuations easy, Beck said. 

Lewis said the train crew followed correct company protocol by stopping the train and notifying MRL’s dispatch office in Missoula, which in turn called 911.

Beck couldn't speak to the timeline of when Clinton fire was notified that the oil tankers were empty. 

"We continue to encourage strong communication between MRL, the 911 Center and first responders to ensure everyone knows what's going on in an emergency," she said.  

According to Lewis, the mechanical failure in the locomotive resulted in unburnt fuel entering the exhaust stack and igniting. The cause is under investigation. The locomotive was being evaluated Monday, and no damage estimate was available.

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian