Propane problem put out " South Tahoe firefighters train to avoid hazards |

Propane problem put out " South Tahoe firefighters train to avoid hazards

By Gregory Crofton, Tribune staff writer

The orange and yellow flames that blanket the old truck bed turn to blue and purple as firefighters inch forward into the blaze.

With the fire out, clouds of white smoke and the smell of unburned propane gas circulate behind Lake Valley Fire Department. Now the yellow firehose that lies steaming in puddles of water needs to be rolled up because the training exercise is complete.

Lake Valley firefighters, both paid and volunteers, participated in six propane burns Wednesday night. The department tries to hold a propane training exercise each year before heavy snow hits and broken propane regulators become a possibility.

The training was done on department property where a gas line leads from a tank of propane to a propped up truck bed about 40 yards away. Road flares ignite gas as it jets from a valve and engulfs the area in flame, licking the air 10 feet above the metal bed.

Then it’s up to a team of five firefighters to correctly hose the burning propane gas. Their goal is to make the fire spread out to the sides of the bed and create a safe space for a firefighter to close the valve and stop the fire at its source.

“The whole trick to gas fires is to get the gas turned off,” said Battalion Chief Brian Eakin. “Eliminate the fuel then you can put out the fire.”

Despite Wednesday night’s frigid temperatures, Jon Anderson, a 32-year-old banker who’s been a volunteer at Lake Valley for more than five years, had no complaints about the exercise.

“This is probably the most fun,” he said. “It’s loud and there’s a lot of fire. Things happen pretty quick. You’ve got to be careful.”

Propane is not as much of a fire threat today as it was back in the early ’90s when many tanks in the area only had one regulator. During the winter of 1993, storm after storm pounded South Shore creating a snow layer that buried propane tanks and other gas equipment. During one week in January, four buildings exploded because regulators had broken under the weight of snow. The explosions resulted in three deaths and nine injuries.

“Since then they’ve started double regulating and started trying to protect the regulators.” Eakin said. “In the past regulators froze and allowed gas to run freely into the house. The ignition source often would be the pilot light of a heater.”

Propane is heavier than air and will sometimes pool near the foundation of a house because of its density. With a heavy winter, a layer of snow also prevents normal ventilation and can filter out the identifying odor of propane gas.

To prevent problems, all gas meters and valves should be keep snow-free.

“Keep the regulator in an area that’s protected,” Eakin said. “Make sure it’s out of the direct path of water.”

(Tips courtesy of CornerStone Propane.)

— burns cleanly and has high heat value.

— is not poisonous.

— is colorless, odorless in its natural state. A foul smelling odorant is added to help detect leaks.

— Extremely flammable gas

— If you detect a gas odor, investigate and try to find the source. Usually, the source is a pilot light that has blown out or a cooking burner that is left partially open. If you can’t locate a source, call your gas company immediately.

— Carbon monoxide can build up if propane is burned in an unventilated area. Heavy moisture built up on windows and walls is an indicator of the presence of CO.

— Gas appliances, control valves and pressure regulators can be ruined by immersion in water. If any part of gas system has been flooded, it must be inspected by a trained gas technician.

— Never let a tank of propane run out because a leak could occur when the system is recharged with gas.

— Know how to shut off your propane valve in case of an emergency. Most valves have a hand wheel you turn clockwise to the right until tight.

(Energy Source, Inc.)

— Propane serves approximately 60 million people in the U. S. where 15 billion gallons are used annually.

— In 1910, Dr. Walter Snelling invented propane when he discovered it was part of the gas that evaporated from a tank of gasoline he bought. Snelling sold his propane patent to Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips Petroleum Company, for $50,000. Today, propane gas is an $8 billion industry in the U. S. alone.

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