Last month, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake shook the peninsula and created a hole in a 1 1/4-inch gas line in a residential area of Kenai. What caused the gas that subsequently leaked out to ignite, however, might never be uncovered.
Kenai Fire Marshal Tommy Carver is in the process of completing a report on the earthquake and following gas explosions that destroyed four homes along Lilac Lane on Jan. 24. When the quake, which struck at 1:30 a.m., opened up the line, the natural gas leached out into the ground where it was able to move around under a layer of frozen soil, Carver said.
“What it wants to do is find the path of least resistance, which often times is underneath homes because they’re not frozen underneath,” he said.
From there, the gas was ignited by something and caused one home on Lilac Lane to explode at 2:13 a.m., Carver said. Firefighters and Kenai Police responded, put the fire out on that first home, and evacuated the neighborhood.
Even after his investigation, Carver said the department may never know what actually ignited the gas due to the extent of damage that was done to the homes.
“Virtually any spark could be an ignition source,” he said.
Firefighters, police and employees of Enstar Natural Gas Co. remained in the Lilac Lane area after the first explosion-driven fire had been put out. The second explosion shook the street at 5:54 a.m., Carver said.
Two Enstar employees who were in the process of digging down to the gas line in front of the houses were in close range at the time, but happened to be behind a large spruce tree and were not harmed, he said.
“They were within 30 feet of the house,” Carver said. “Had they not been blocked by the tree, I think it could have been catastrophic.”
Kenai Fire Captain John Harris and Battalion Chief Tony Prior were also close to the second house when it exploded, Carver said. Prior later told him he hadn’t noticed at first that a window and a garage door from the home had shot across the street, he said.
“They were definitely in harm’s way,” Carver said. “It was probably sheer luck that nothing went directly at them.”
Carver’s official report should be finished in a few weeks, he said. The department enters all fire incidents into a database called the Alaska National Fire Incident Reporting System, which feeds into a national database, said Kenai Fire Chief Jeff Tucker.
“For fire reports, we collect it on a national basis, and we have national statistics,” he said.
Tucker said those statistics help people in the firefighting profession to track trends in what burns as well as fire-related deaths and injuries. In turn, these trends inform codes and safety measures within the field, Tucker said.
Carver said the department also holds reviews with staff members following fire incidents to go over what happened and if anything can be learned from the situation.
“We always try and do that with every incident that we have,” he said. “We’ll try and get some training out of this as well.”
In terms of response to the explosions, Carver said Prior and Harris made the right calls early on by evacuating the entire Lilac Lane neighborhood. After the first house exploded, its gas meter was shut off, but Harris could still smell natural gas in the area, which made him nervous, Carver said. Without the early evacuation, there definitely could have been fatalities, he said.
The fires were also unique in that they were caused by the gas leak, so firefighters were not able to fight them as they normally would for fear of continued leaks or explosions, Carver said.
“Captain Harris and Battalion Chief Prior made that decision when the second house blew to pull everybody, including our guys, back away from it,” Carver said. “I think they did a fantastic job. I don’t know that it could have gone better, given the circumstances.”
The fire department has worked closely with Enstar throughout the initial explosions and aftermath. Carver said Enstar personnel were on the scene of the explosions before they were even officially called.
Enstar is conducting its own review of the incident, though it is an internal investigation, said Communications Manager Lindsay Hobson. The review is standard procedure for Enstar any time part of its system is affected or damaged, she said.
Employees from Enstar are still in the Lilac Lane area keeping an eye on gas levels, and though there is no timeline for how long that will last, Hobson said they will likely stay there for the next few weeks.
“We’re just still monitoring to make sure that those gas concentrations stay at a zero percent level,” she said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.