The rupture of a 30-inch gas transmission line in southwest Bakersfield early Friday morning forced creation of an 8-square-mile exclusion zone and the temporary closure of schools as pressurized gas spewed into the air.
The line, which runs from Topock, Ariz. to a terminal in Milpitas, was finally closed at about 10:55 a.m., PG&E spokeswoman Katie Allen said.
She said a contractor that was digging at the rupture site — near Houghton and Wible roads — did not have a valid “USA tag” to do so there.
USA, or Underground Service Alert, is a free service for homeowners and professional contractors who are planning to dig, trench, drill, grade or otherwise excavate below the surface.
The name of the contractor could not be immediately confirmed. Allen said she believes a farmer was preparing his land for new crops.
Kern County Fire Capt. Martin Hernandez said the exclusion zone — an area people were not allowed to enter — was lifted at about 12:30 p.m. Environmental health and hazardous materials personnel monitored the air quality for about a half hour after the gas was shut down and deemed it was safe to lift the order.
The gas posed no lingering environmental impacts as it quickly dissipated, he said. Twelve residents evacuated their homes during the incident, and about 120 remained sheltered inside until the line was turned off.
Hernandez said the incident began sometime after 7:30 a.m. when a piece of heavy equipment struck the line. The specific line struck was 300A, a main transmission line carrying pressurized gas. Other lines feed into it.
The line couldn’t immediately be shut off; it had to be done slowly because of residual gas in the line, Hernandez said.
“We are fortunate it’s a rural area, there aren’t a lot of homes here,” Hernandez said.
Repairs could take as long as 48 hours. Allen said residents who normally use line 300A were transferred to line 300B for the duration of the repairs.
Three industrial companies lost gas service. Allen said PG&E was providing them portable compressed natural gas until the line is fixed.
While the area largely includes farms with sporadic homes, Panama Elementary School had been evacuated as a precaution. Students at nearby General Shafter Elementary School were also evacuated.
A staff member said about 150 students were picked up following evacuations that began shortly after 8 a.m.
Panama Elementary evacuated between 8:30 and 9 a.m., Panama-Buena Vista Union School District Assistant Superintendent Gerry Kincaid said. More than 800 students were bused to Berkshire Elementary at 3900 Berkshire Road.
Office staff worked to reunite children with their parents. Kincaid said at 10:30 a.m. there was a line of about 100 parents patiently waiting at Berkshire.
“We're going through the same process we usually do and make sure we're sending kids home with authorized family members,” she said.
An automated call in Spanish and English went out to parents informing them of the evacuation.
Kincaid said she wasn't aware of any injuries or complaints of illness, but the children were bothered by the gas smell and pulled their shirts up over their mouths and noses as they left Panama Elementary.
Remaining students returned to the school at 1 p.m. for the remainder of the school day.
Patt and Robert Sandrini said they called 911 and PG&E at about 7:35 a.m. They live on Houghton Road, about a quarter of a mile from the rupture. They saw a cloud of dust and heard a roaring sound.
“It sounded like a jet engine, really loud,” Robert Sandrini said.
Patt Sandrini said they’ve seen routine maintenance in the area so they know what that work sounds like.
Half an hour later, at about 8 a.m., they were told to evacuate. So they got in their Buick Enclave and drove a mile out.
It later occurred to them their two dogs and a cat were still at home, but they were not allowed to go back to rescue the animals. So they waited, parking on South H Street.
Allen said this incident should serve as a reminder to always call 811 before digging to find out the exact location of underground lines, pipes and cables.
— Jason Kotowski contributed to this report.