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Train carrying crude oil derails, catches fire in Whatcom County

Washington Dept. of Ecology
Fire crews respond to the scene of a derailed train in the city of Custer, WA in Whatcom County on Tuesday, December 22, 2020. A BNSF spokesperson said seven train cars derailed and two caught fire.

A train carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in Whatcom County Tuesday morning, prompting officials to evacuate all nearby residents and businesses for several hours.

Reports that the train had derailed came in around 11:46 a.m., according to the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office, in the 7500 block of Portal Way in Custer, Wash., roughly 15 miles north of Bellingham along I-5.

Officials initially evacuated the area around the scene due to the toxicity of oil smoke, but lifted the order at approximately 4:44 p.m.

Seven cars derailed and two caught fire, BNSF Railway spokesperson Courtney Wallace said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. A fire erupted toward the end of the train sending a plume of smoke into the air that could be seen for miles.

The cause of the derailment remains under investigation, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said.

"The FBI is on the scene," he said. "But we have the state utilities and the Transportation Commission there as well. And we have the right people to determine what happened."

Elfo added that as of approximately 4 p.m., the fire caused by the derailment was still burning but had been contained by fire crews, who used foam to suppress it.

It's not presently clear when the evacuation order will be lifted. But Elfo said officials would soon reevaluate the circumstances.

Local authorities closed off Portal Way between Grandview and Main Street. I-5 was also shut down between Grandview Road and Birch Bay Lynden Road.

BNSF has set up a claims hotline for people impacted by the evacuation, the number for which is 1-800-243-4784.