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Firefighters Working to Prevent Rail Car Explosion

August 24, 2011

A burning rail car loaded with liquid propane prompted the evacuations of several thousand homes in a Northern California suburb on Tuesday as firefighters worked to prevent an explosion that threatened to level nearby houses, schools and businesses.

About 4,800 homes lie within the mandatory evacuation area — designated as within one mile of the rail car — and the American Red Cross has set up three evacuation centers in Lincoln, a city of 40,000 north of Sacramento.

The 29,000-gallon tanker caught fire midday at a Northern Propane Energy yard.

Firefighters set up four fixed hoses to soak the tanker and to keep down its temperature while the propane burns off, a process that could take until Wednesday, officials said. Trying to directly extinguish the flames shooting into the air from a vent could create a propane gas cloud that could ignite into a fireball, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

Highway 65, a major commuter thoroughfare between Sacramento and Lincoln, was closed near the blaze, the California Highway Patrol said. Authorities didn’t know when the road would reopen.

Staff members of a high school and middle school in the evacuation zone were told to leave Tuesday afternoon, KXTV-TV reported. Students weren’t present at the school and the Lincoln Fire Department said the first day of classes — scheduled for Wednesday at 11 schools — has been canceled because of the ongoing danger.

It was unclear how the tanker caught fire. A worker who was tending to the tanker was hurt and transported to a local hospital, although no details on the extent of the injuries were available, Berlant said.

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