She don’t lie: propane

Big-rig load of volatile gas ruptures and explodes in south Chico

BURN, BABY, BURN<br>This photo was taken about three hours after a tanker carrying propane ruptured and ignited along the Midway near Speedway Boulevard south of Chico. The flames continued for another 12 hours.

This photo was taken about three hours after a tanker carrying propane ruptured and ignited along the Midway near Speedway Boulevard south of Chico. The flames continued for another 12 hours.

Photo By Tom Angel

It’s a gas, gas, gas:
A Pittsburgh doctor, Walter Snelling, discovered propane, a vapor formed by evaporating gasoline, in 1910. By 1912 the gas was used to cook food; a year later it powered a car; and in 1915 it was used in a cutting torch. Snelling sold his propane patent to Frank Phillips, the founder of Phillips Petroleum Company, for $50,000. Today it is an $8 billion industry in the United States.

Investigators are still looking for the cause of the spectacular tanker explosion in south Chico Feb. 2, when a trucker bailed from his leaking rig and escaped a massive fireball with a 100-yard sprint.

At about 9:25 that sunny Sunday morning, trucker James Gowen of Bakersfield realized as he headed south on Midway toward Durham that he had missed his turnoff for Coast Gas Inc., which is located on Valine Lane near Meyers Street off South Park Avenue. He was delivering more than 9,000 gallons of volatile liquid propane carried in two tanks.

Gowen, who was driving for the Bakersfield-based Lone Star Trucking, attempted to turn his rig around in the shallow parking lots of two businesses on the west side of the Midway and head back toward South Park when something caused him to stop and exit the cab of the truck.

Mike Carr, a press information officer for the California Department of Forestry, said when Gowen got out of the vehicle he saw leakage and made the smart choice—he took off running as fast as he could. He got about 100 yards into a neighboring orchard when the leaking propane, which turns to a gas when it leaves the low temperature of the tank and hits the warmer air, exploded in a mighty fireball.

The fronts of the businesses—Agri Electric and Baird Roofing—were scorched, and five vehicles parked on the lots were burned. Fortunately, the explosion occurred on a Sunday, and no one was in either of the businesses.

Oak trees standing on either side of the lot were blackened, and three hours after the explosion telephone poles across Midway, 75 yards from the truck, were still smoldering.

Within minutes of the explosion, some 500 residents in 430 dwellings within a one-mile radius of the explosion, just north of Speedway Avenue, were contacted via reverse 911, Carr said, and advised to evacuate the area for fear that the second tank could blow.

A command center of emergency personnel, including 60 firefighters, press and volunteers, was set up at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds. The decision was made to keep firefighters away and allow the propane in the ruptured tank to burn off, which it did at an estimated rate of two to three gallons per minute.

Even with the initial explosion, propane remained in the ruptured tank and continued to burn until about midnight. That tank was tipped over on its side, either during the driver’s attempt to turn or as a result of the explosion.

The explosion touched off a second fire from a natural gas line that feeds the businesses. The heat from the fires then caused the contents of the remaining upright tank to build in pressure until a pressure relief valve opened, spewing propane, which then ignited and burned in a steady furious flame until the next morning, when the pressure in the tank decreased and the safety valve closed.

The remaining 1,400 or so gallons of propane in that tank were loaded into another container and hauled away.

Janet Marshall, also a CDF spokesperson, explained that Butte County does not have the authority to conduct a mandatory evacuation, that it can only strongly advise residents to leave their homes. However, those away from their homes when an incident occurs can be kept out of the area.

PG&E workers and consultants were brought in because they are part of the local emergency response team and out of concern for a natural-gas line that runs along the Midway. Carr said a valve along that line was located that night and shut to stop that source of fire.

Evacuees were allowed to return to their homes Monday afternoon after spending the night at a Red Cross evacuation center set up at the First Baptist Church on Palmetto Avenue. Roads were opened to the public by early Monday evening.

It will take a few more days before the cause of the accident and the cost of cleanup are made public.