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Lightning hits GF gas main, sets area ablaze

Lightning hit a tree about 6 tonight at Fairview Place and 39th Avenue South in Grand Forks, causing an underground natural gas line to ignite, starting a fire that burned for an hour or more. Submitted by Dean Harrington, a nearby resident.

Lightning hit a tree shortly after 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Fairview Place and 39th Avenue South in Grand Forks, blowing a hole in an underground natural gas main and igniting a fire that burned for more than an hour on the berm between the street and a house.

It happened a block and a half west of Belmont Road on 39th Avenue.

Crews from the Grand Forks Fire Department and Xcel Energy worked for an hour to contain the fire and finally put it out by shutting off the gas supply.

A fire truck sprayed water all over the grass on a berm, the sidewalk, trees and a picket fence next to the 300-square-foot area that burned just a few feet from a house.

10-foot flames

Flames from the fire reached 10 feet high in flares, and the heat could be felt a block away. The smell of natural gas was present, too.

Police evacuated residents within about a block radius of the fire, including a nearby home for disabled young people.

To shut off the gas main, Xcel Energy brought in a loader/backhoe tractor to dig down to the gas line about half a block from the fire. Within about 5 minutes, the hole was dug down more than 3 feet and an Xcel worker turned a valve at 7:07 p.m., shutting down the gas. The fire went out immediately, leaving a blackened patch of grass and a scorched tree on the berm.

An Altru ambulance stood by. Passers-by stood along Belmont Road, taking photos and watching the fire.

Several reported hearing an extremely loud crash of thunder after a lightning strike shortly before 6 p.m.; some theorized the noise they heard included an explosion from the gas, but that could not be determined.

Grand Forks police officer Bill Wyatt said no one was injured. The working theory at the scene was that a lightning bolt hit a tree on the berm, went down along the tree into the ground, hitting and bursting the gas line, which is more than 2 feet underground, Wyatt said.

Bonnie Lund, spokeswoman for Xcel out of Fargo, said Xcel got a call at 5:43 p.m. about the lightning and fire. It appears that a lightning strike traveled down a tree, hitting and rupturing a gas main along 39th Avenue, she said.

An Xcel crew was fixing the line Saturday night and she didn't think service would be out very long to customers in that neighborhood.

Shortly after the fire was extinguished, Darin Erickson of Xcel used a gas indicator to see if there was any leaking gas around the site. There apparently was not a leak.

The ruptured line will have to be fixed, Lund said.

While such violent lightning strikes busting gas lines aren't common, "it does happen," Lund said. "It's not highly unusual."

On Friday, in fact, a television news station in Albany, N.Y., reported a small fire in mulch in a backyard started by a lightning strike that ruptured a natural gas line. No one was injured, and a resident put out the small fire before emergency crews arrived.

The upside of such scary incidents is that no natural gas is pooling or collecting in a way that could cause a large explosion, Lund said.

The ruptured line Saturday night burned much like the flaring of natural gas from oil wells. Firefighters worked mainly to keep nearby trees, a high wooden fence and a white picket fence from igniting by keeping a spray of water over them while the gas burned.

The lightning bolt apparently hit the tree's root system and traveled 30 to 40 feet under-ground before hitting the 2-inch plastic pipe and blowing a hole in it, Lund said. The lightning strike blew a hole in the ground, too.

Lund said about 15 customers in the neighborhood lost service when the main was shut off, Lund said. She expected service to be restored with temporary repairs by midnight Saturday and for crews to put in a permanent fix later.