One person died and three others were sent to the hospital with second- and third-degree burns Friday afternoon after a natural gas line explosion sent flames hundreds of feet into the air near Houghton and Wible roads southwest of Bakersfield.
Flames from the ruptured line could clearly be seen from the top of the City of Bakersfield’s 18th Street parking structure in downtown Bakersfield, at least 10 miles from the blast.
“A third party, more than likely a farmer, hit the line with a piece of heavy equipment,” Kern County Fire Department Capt. Tom Ellison said. “The operator of that vehicle was killed.”
Witness Marla Proffitt, who supplied dramatic video of the flames from the passenger seat of a pickup, said the fire was such that it “heated the interior of our truck, and the roar was louder than a jet engine.
“Unfortunately the vehicle and house (near the blast) were all but gone and a hay barn also was burning,” Proffitt said in a text. “I don't see how anyone still in the house could’ve survived once the flames got there.”
The push of gas and flames threw trees into the air, she said.
The state's primary regulator of natural gas lines, the California Public Utilities Commission, said it had sent an investigator to the site of what it said was Transmission Line 300A. It said automatic valves initiated a shutoff.
“We have ordered PG&E to make the area safe, conduct a leak migration survey, set up a 100-foot perimeter and staff off the incident scene until we release it,” the agency said by email.
According to Ellison, firefighters waited for PG&E workers to arrive, letting the flames burn off escaping gas. When PG&E arrived on scene, Ellison said, they shut off valves on either side of the fire, thereby cutting off the gas fueling the flames. PG&E Spokesperson Katie Allen said the manual valves were able to isolate a smaller portion of the line than the automatic ones which were triggered immediately.
The fire was extinguished in approximately 30 minutes after PG&E crews arrived, according to Ellison.
“It is safest to let the fire burn escaping gas rather than let the gas escape,” Ellison said.
The ”high-pressure“ pipeline was 30 to 36 inches in diameter, he added. The fire department and other agencies were also working to extinguish a fire resulting from the explosion that involved two vehicles and a structure.
PG&E spokesman Jeff Smith also said a third party (likely the man who later died) made contact with the pipeline, not the utility.
”We're still looking into the specifics of how the contact was made,’’ he said.
Smith the utility tested the pipeline for leaks as recently as this week and found none, and that records show no leak along the line for at least the last three years.
There had recently been what is known as an “8-1-1 ticket” indicating someone intended to excavate nearby, Smith said. But that ticket expired Nov. 5, he said, and no digging is allowed without current paperwork.
According to PG&E’s timetable, the pipeline experienced a loss of pressure at 3:37 p.m., and within four minutes automatic valves halted the flow of gas to the segment affected. The company said its first responder arrived on scene at 4:04 p.m., and it took until about 4:30 for gas in the pipeline to be exhausted and the flame to finally go out.
About 450 PG&E electric customers temporarily lost power as a result of the fire.
Smith, the company spokesman, said the utility intentionally cut electricity to the immediate area because of the accident and was still working to restore power to the area at 6:30 p.m.
STRONG LANGUAGE WARNING: The video shows gas line explosion near Wible Road on Nov. 13, 2015. It was provided to The Californian by Marla Proffitt.