Oct. 19–BAY POINT — Teri Pedersen and her five children returned to their Bay Point home with a sense of wariness after being evacuated just past midnight Thursday morning when a fire mysteriously burned inside a Chevron natural gas pipeline vault.
The scare that forced Pedersen and 1,400 other residents in Pittsburg and Bay Point out of their homes sparked a heightened awareness about living so close to a natural gas pipeline. The ordeal has even stirred thoughts of a family move out of the neighborhood.
“We’re all kind of leery,” she said.
In the end, authorities avoided disaster and extinguished the vault fire before the gas line exploded, avoiding potential casualties and property loss. But the incident stirred visions of the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people and wiped out most of a neighborhood.
“We prepared for an immediate (explosion) or a more extended one,” Contra Costa County Fire Protection assistant chief Terence Carey said Friday. “We had no indication of knowing what might occur. … A lot went right, and that played into the favorable outcome.”
A day after the near-disaster, investigators still were trying to piece together what happened. The call to the vault fire came around 8:30 p.m., authorities said. Around 11 p.m., authorities ordered the evacuations.
A grass fire burned earlier that evening, which PG&E blamed on large “birds of prey” coming into contact with a power line, that fell and sparked flames. Crews put it out, but somehow gas leaking from a 3/8-of-an-inch underground line operated by Chevron ignited, fire officials said. The underground vault that housed the pipe and another one ignited, and crews needed the entire morning to douse it with nitrogen.
But how close was it to exploding? The gas pressure within the pipe built up to 425 PSI and the temperature rose to more than 400 degrees. The vault itself was 10 feet by 12 feet with a 3-foot diameter, ConFire spokesman Steve Hill said.
Glen Stevik, principal mechanical engineer for Berkeley Engineering and Research, Inc., said a thin diameter is designed to resist tremendous gas pressure and the metal gets stronger until it reaches 500 degrees.
“It’s not until you get to about 1,000 degrees that metal starts to reach the breaking point,” he said.
Carey said fire crews were aware of the vault’s existence, but that more than 24 hours after being called there, authorities still hadn’t determined who discovered it was on fire. He also said that Chevron’s experts advised him it was potentially a disastrous incident.
The orders for the evacuation came with a tangible urgency, he said.
“My concern was that we had no idea how long we had,” Carey said. “Was it going to be immediate? Did we have five hours? Nine hours? How long would it be until that potential even occurred. … In my 35-year career, I have not experienced an evacuation of that magnitude that went as quickly and as professionally as that one.”
In a prepared statement, Chevron spokesperson Jan Sieving said, “Yesterday’s decision to evacuate was made by first responders in an abundance of caution to safeguard the community. There were no injuries from this incident. Once the incident investigation is complete, and the cause is known, we will apply this knowledge to prevent recurrence.”
Pedersen said she had just picked up her daughter from school and returned home around 5 p.m. when she heard a sharp, loud “zzz” sound — something electrical, she figured — and went outside to see the small grass fire and crews fighting it.
Later, just after midnight, she and neighbors got knocks on the door from police urging them to evacuate.
Like Pedersen’s family, resident Jan Tidwell and her daughter and grandchildren were evacuated. Tidwell had received a call from a family member about half an hour earlier asking if she was OK and informing her about the evacuations, so she started packing up to go as officers knocked on doors.
Tidwell said she was grateful for the assistance provided by Calvary Temple Church volunteers and the American Red Cross during the ordeal. Now that it’s over, fear over the prospect of another such incident lingers in the neighborhood.
If the grass fire indeed sparked the vault fire, that’s worrisome, residents say, because fires are not uncommon in the area. There are some regular homeless encampments in the grassy area that abuts their neighborhood along Pullman Road, and it is crossed by BNSF Railway tracks. Cooking fires, cigarettes and other activities could pose a fire risk, they fear.
In the three years since Pedersen has lived in the neighborhood, she said she can think of five or six fires in that grassy area.
“We’re left in limbo,” Tidwell said. “It makes me feel like it’s not safe.”
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