Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:25 PM on Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Firefighters dodge exploding fuel tank



Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

Lynn Pattie's car and garage, right, were destroyed in the fire. The round front of an exploded fuel tank lies next to the porch and entryway, also damaged in the fire.

An exploding heating fuel tank inside a garage narrowly missed hitting firefighters Sunday morning when the tank ruptured, spewing flames that one witness described as "a fire tornado." The blast shot the main part of the tank 150 feet through the wall and into a field, while the end of the tank blew through a steel door.

Miraculously, no one was hurt.

"It missed them by feet," Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter said. "If pieces of that tank had hit anybody, they would have been seriously injured, if not killed."

Painter said several firefighters by the garage had just stepped away from the garage to check on water to hoses when the tank blew.

"I saw where the firefighters were," said Nick Varney, a resident in the area who witnessed the blast and the tank spinning away from the house. "It was like the finger of God was on them. It went right between them."

HVFD and Kachemak Emergency Services firefighters near the blast wore protective turnout gear, breathing masks and helmets and did not suffer blast or burn injuries. Painter said no one even had ringing ears or singed hair.

The explosion happened when firefighters went to a fully involved garage fire at the Bruce Avenue home of Lynn Pattie off East End Road below Wasabi's Restaurant.

Jane Varney, Pattie's neighbor to the south, called 911 at 8:07 a.m. after she looked out her kitchen window and saw flames licking at the eaves of the garage. Varney called Pattie and warned her of the fire, and Pattie escaped without harm.

Soldotna dispatchers paged out KES and then HVFD, Painter said. Bruce Avenue is in Kachemak City, but receives fire service under a contract with HVFD. KES crews had already arrived when the first Homer fire engine arrived at 8:23 a.m. A wind from the west pushed flames toward Pattie's house and had started to melt the vinyl siding on Pattie's home. The fire burned a porch and arctic entryway on her home, but otherwise did not damage the single-story house. The fire destroyed the garage and Pattie's car. Homes are on large lots in the area and the tank landed in an empty field. Burning embers did land on neighbors' yards, but because of snow and frozen ground weren't a threat.

Firefighters did not realize a fuel tank was inside the garage, but did know a car was inside. Pattie had told firefighters of other dangers in the garage, but in her panic forgot to tell firefighters of the fuel tank, Painter said.

"The homeowner was just beside herself that it happened," he said. "I don't know if it would have made much difference."

Firefighters could hear something venting inside the garage.

"It sounded like a jet engine," Painter said. "The big thing is we could hear something. We couldn't see it. We couldn't get access because of the flames and the heat."

The explosion was a classic BLEVE, for "boiling liquid, expanding vapor explosion," Painter said. The 300-gallon tank was about a quarter full, Painter said. A fire that started elsewhere in the garage heated the tank and the fuel, showing a visible line where the tank was empty. When the fuel heated, it vaporized, and the vapors expanded in the tank. Because the tank had more room because of low fuel, the vapors could build up.

Vents in properly designed fuel tanks should allow vapor to escape, but Painter didn't know if the vents worked properly. Fuel oil tanks aren't designed to hold pressure, and when the vapor built up faster than it could vent, pressure built up, rupturing the welds on the tank. The catastrophic failure and the sudden release of vaporized fuel ignited, creating a huge fireball.

"What's amazing to me was this fire tornado came out. It was spinning," Nick Varney said.

The fireball had one positive effect: with so much fuel burning, it sucked oxygen out of the fire, putting it out.

Painter said it was lucky the fuel tank hadn't been propane.

"If it had been propane, it would have leveled the house and garage and probably killed 8 to 10 people," he said.

State fire codes for commercial buildings or multiple-family dwellings prohibit storing fuel tanks inside structures. There are no state codes for residential tanks, said Megan Peters, a spokesperson for the Alaska Department Public Safety, Division of Fire and Life Safety.

"It's not something that should be kept indoors in the opinion of the Fire Marshal's office," Peters said.

Homer city code doesn't address placement of residential fuel tanks. Commercial structures in the city need the State Fire Marshal's approval, and thus would not allow inside tanks, said Homer Planning Director Rick Abboud.

Most fuel tanks are outside, Painter said, and in other fires with outside tanks, firefighters can see them and take precautions, like turning off fuel valves and hosing down tanks to keep them cool. Gas tanks on cars usually vent or, if made of plastic, melt.

"They blow up on Hollywood, mostly," Painter said.

Painter said he planned to talk to HomeRun Oil and Petro Marine to see if there are many inside fuel tanks on the lower Kenai Peninsula.

Jeff Erickson, owner of HomeRun Oil, said there are a small number of inside fuel tanks he knows of, but that most are outside. This was the first he heard of a fuel tank exploding like that. He suspected there might have been a problem with the venting. Most tanks have proper vents, he said. Some tanks have fuel caps that flip open under pressure while others have a J-shaped pipe that curves up, with the open end on the bottom. If someone has a tank indoors, it should be vented outside, but HomeRun Oil encourages people to put tanks outside.

"It's just a safer bet," Erickson said.

He also advised keeping the tank full.

"The less fuel you have in there, the worse off you are," Erickson said. "The vapor pressure is much more dangerous than the liquid expanding."

Painter said if he finds out there is a significant problem, he's going to talk to the city manager and the borough about prohibiting tanks from being indoors.

Nick Varney said Pattie went next door to a neighbor's house after she got out of her house.

"Everybody in the whole neighborhood surrounded her and took care of her," Varney said.

Pattie has family in Homer. A message was left with her daughter, Shelly Fraley, but at press time she did not return a call.

Painter said the cause of the fire remains under investigation, but he suspects a space heater by a water pump might have caused the fire.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.