BAY POINT (CBS SF) — An evacuation order that affected thousands in Bay Point and Pittsburg was lifted at 2:30 p.m Thursday afternoon after crews put out a fire that was threatening a major Chevron natural gas pipeline, officials said.
Officials announced the lifting of the evacuations during a 2:30 p.m. press conference and said the re-population would begin immediately.
Around 4,000 people were forced to flee from 1,400 homes late Wednesday night, officials said.
Assistant Fire Chief Terence Carey said a small vegetation fire erupted in the area Wednesday afternoon. Crews extinguished the fire without incident but were called back to the scene when they were alerted to a fire in a utility vault that threatened the pipeline.
“There is an active fire in the vault,” Carey told reporters Thursday morning. “We are not sending our firefighters in there until we know it is safe.’
Tuesday afternoon, fire officials said that the 12-inch pipe that was underneath a utility vault were the fire was burning appeared to be undamaged.
Carey said that it still had not been determined how the vegetation fire had spread to the vault and that the continuing investigation into the cause of the fire would focus on that detail.
“I want to thank our citizens that were inconvenienced for quite a while,” Carey said. “We appreciate their patience and we’re glad to get them back into their homes.”
Officials hailed the operation a success, saying there were no injuries to residents or safety workers and no damage to any homes.
Drone video provided by the Pittsburg Police Department showed the utility vault on fire overnight. Under that vault sits a 12-inch high pressure natural gas line at risk of exploding.
“It was realized very quickly that there was a high probability of danger,” said Carey.
But by Thursday morning, officials said there was “no threat of explosion at this point.”
Contra Costa County Fire Protection District spokesman Steve Hill said a decision on the ongoing evacuations will be made once
the line is declared safe.
Chevron officials said they were contacted at around 8 p.m. Wednesday to notify them of the blaze.
“Chevron Pipe Line Company was notified of a fire caused by an electrical power line falling, which started a fire near our valve junction on the Northern California Gas Line near Pittsburg,” a company statement said. “CPL immediately shut down the line and dispatched a field team to investigate.”
The fire at the utility vault was first reported at 8:41 p.m. in the vicinity of Poinsettia and Suisun avenues, fire department spokesman Steve Hill said.
The 12-inch, high-pressure natural gas line runs through the East Bay.
The line affected by the blaze has been isolated from the rest of the pipelines, Hill said. He advised that didn’t mean the threat of an explosion was mitigated and said residents should still heed evacuation orders from Wednesday night in an abundance of caution because there is still a threat of an explosion.
Fire officials estimated the Chevron vault and gas line to be about two football field away from some of the closest homes. Authorities couldn’t take any chances on the possibility of a large gas line explosion like the deadly 2010 incident in San Bruno.
“All the potentials were there for the makings of a disaster,” said Contra Costa Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Lewis Broschard.
Chevron officials said the pipeline was being flooded with nitrogen to extinguished the blaze, but there was no ETA for when the residents would be allowed to go back home.
At around 11 p.m., evacuations were ordered for anyone within half a mile of the site, according to Contra Costa Fire. Pittsburg police and the Contra Costa County Sheriff went door to door to help carry out evacuations.
Evacuations were ordered in the area of North Broadway Avenue to the west, Summer Way to the east, Suisun Avenue in the north and Willow Pass Road to the south were ordered to evacuate.
The residents forced from their homes crowded into evacuation centers at the Calvary Temple Church at 4725 Evora Road in Concord and at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg. Evacuees who were initially located at the Pittsburg / Bay Point BART station have been moved to the college.
It was a long night and morning for the many Bay Point residents who gathered at the evacuation center opened by Calvary Temple Church. The 150 cots inside the church facility were all full. Some people had to resort to sleeping in their cars with their pets.
“I was awoken by sheriffs knocking at the door telling us it was a mandatory evacuation, that there was a pipeline that may explode and that we had to get out immediately,” Bay Point evacuee and mother of five Danica Connolly.
Connolly said she has never been through something like this before with her kids.
“I had to wake them and try to give them a brief explanation as to why we’re running out of the house,” Connolly said. “Hearing a gas pipeline is so close to my house, I didn’t even know that. And so very scared and worried. Worried for my neighbors.”
The Red Cross quickly set up the evacuation center at the Concord church to provide shelter overnight. A hot breakfast was served to everyone first thing in the morning. Pastor Jason Morgan said he hasn’t slept since Tuesday night.
“As people started to show up, we said, ‘You know what? Let’s open up the lobby.’ And we got hot coffee and let them use the bathrooms and what not, said Morgan. Then we just started to get a very large influx of people that started coming in. In fact, people were just lined up out the door.”
At 6 a.m. Thursday morning, the Red Cross was able to set up the second refuge for people at the gymnasium of Los Medanos College in Pittsburg.
“It’s a very intense situation and people are under a lot of stress,” said Red Cross spokesperson Kathleen Maclay.
At the church, hopes that it would be over by noon evaporated as lunch arrived.
“We don’t know whether people would be here. We didn’t know we’d be serving lunch, said Bay Church Compassion Outreach Director Carey Gregg. So, we’re just keeping going forward as time goes on. Making it up as we go along!”
As the afternoon dragged on, movies played on overhead screens. Outside, the local Food Bank began handing out bags of fresh produce.
When the all-clear was given at 2:30 p.m., people were relieved to go home, happy that a disaster had been averted.
“It was a long night, a long day, but we are safe,” said Pittsburg evacuee Mbong Valentin. “That’s the most important thing.”