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Fire departments, propane companies ask for help
3/14/2008 By: Carole McWilliams
Do you know where your propane tank is? How about your gas line regulator? That’s the round metal thing about six inches across.
Representatives from several area fire departments, the county, and Amerigas held a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the Upper Pine fire station at Forest Lakes to ask those questions.
The recent house fires north of Bayfield have been attributed to snow and ice damage to propane lines or regulators. Most of those were in Forest Lakes. Another factor has been heating system vents blocked or damaged by snow on the roof.
Upper Pine Chief Rich Graeber worried that as areas farther north warm up and there’s more freezing and thawing, the rash of fires also could move north.
“In the last several weeks, we’ve had six fires, as many as we usually have all year, and nine since Thanksgiving,” Graeber said, plus more than 30 calls to investigate gas smells or for carbon monoxide (CO).
One of those fires was caused by a heat tape, and one by a bad extension cord, he said. “We haven’t found any of these fires that we are suspicious of foul play or intentionally set.”
Los Pinos Fire Chief Larry Behrens urged residents to inspect gas lines and roof vents. “Make sure they are clear and not damaged, look at the propane tank, and where the flex line comes into the house. It’s your responsibility as a homeowner to make sure those are clear.”
Behrens also advised people to check the batteries in their smoke detectors and carbon monoxide alarms.
Graeber said warnings apply to in-town residents on natural gas too, and to business owners. In-town gas meters also have regulators. Some gas meters in Bayfield were damaged by snow plowing, he said.
DFRA fire investigator Tom Kaufman noted that a lot of commercial buildings have gently sloping roofs with the heating and ventilation systems that can be damaged by snow. “We’ve had two where the line cracked,” he said.
They also have had CO incidents because of blocked or broken vents, Kaufman said. One of those almost killed a family. In that case the gas concentration was far above the safe limit, and several others have been above the 35 parts per million limit, he said.
Pagosa Fire Chief Ron Thompson urged rural residents to make sure their address is visible above the snowbanks. “In the upper elevations, there are people who still haven’t shoveled out their driveways or walkway to their homes,” he said, and that can make fire response harder. He urged residents to get that done.
Amerigas representative Brad Townsend said they are encountering propane tanks buried under six feet of snow. It’s hard to shut the gas off in an emergency if you have to find the tank first, he said.
County Building Department Director Butch Knowlton said his office is going to review its minimum standards and inspection procedures to identify and correct situations that can lead to fires in heavy winters.
Knowlton warned that propane is heavy, so it doesn’t rise and dissipate. “We have had line failures under ground that leach out the smell, so it’s totally odorless and can accumulate.”
Graeber urged anyone with questions to call one of the fire departments, the gas supplier, or the building department.
“We can look at a property and say what is hazardous,” he said. He noted some houses, including the one that burned last Friday, are in remote locations and firefighters have to find them.
Some of the fires have been at houses that had been unoccupied for a while. He urged residents who are going to be gone to arrange for someone to take care of these issues.
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