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Gas leak fills Riverside Church

Emergency personnel had to race against cold weather to air out a building where the natural gas concentration peaked at 62%.

Riverside UMC
Riverside United Methodist Church, Park Rapids was the site of a natural gas leak on Jan. 20, 2022.
Robin Fish / Park Rapids Enterprise

A natural gas leak led to a local church being evacuated Thursday morning in Park Rapids.

According to Assistant Fire Chief Ben Cumber, the Park Rapids Fire Department was called out at approximately 9:14 a.m. for a gas leak at Riverside United Methodist Church.

No one was injured, Cumber reported. “Everybody that was in there evacuated the building,” he said.

One of the first to arrive, Cumber was on scene at approximately 9:20 a.m. The fire department responded with two fire engines with five firefighters apiece, a total of 12-13 personnel. Also responding were the Park Rapids Police Department, Minnesota Power and Minnesota Energy Resources personnel.

Upon arrival, emergency personnel noted that the wind direction was northwest at 2 mph. “So, we brought our apparatus up around the north side of the church,” Cumber said. “Going up 71, you could smell gas.”

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They confirmed the presence of gas with two different analyzers. “The highest reading of gas we read in the building was 62%,” said Cumber. “The flammability rate of natural gas is between 5 and 15%. So it was way more gas in there than even what it explodes at.”

However, he said, firefighters knew that to bring the gas level down in the building, they would have to go through that hazardous range on the way back to zero.

“We took most of our direction from the gas company,” said Cumber. “We got the gas shut off. The meter was just shaking, it was pumping so much gas in there. Then we decided it was safe to shut the power off. There’s always a spark risk when you cut or start power. We decided that we were above the upper limit far enough to shut the power off.”

After cutting both gas and electricity to the building, personnel aired the building out for about an hour. “Once it was safe at the front door, we put a fan there,” said Cumber, “and ventilated the rest of the building.”

Temperatures outside were around -10 degrees Fahrenheit, and with the power off and outside air blowing through, the building cooled down fast.

“At that point, it’s a race against time to get it warmed back up before it froze the water lines,” Cumber said. “When we left, it was, I think, 40 degrees in there because we had to have the doors open and all the windows open, and we had to blow fresh air in to get the old air out.”

Personnel cleared the scene by about 11:30 a.m., Cumber said.

“Everybody was really smart about radios,” he said. “It went really well. That could have been a really bad deal, there. Take the size of that church full of natural gas, that’s a huge volume of gas. So, it went absolutely perfect, thank God.”

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As of early Thursday afternoon, Cumber said it was unclear what caused the gas leak. “We just got it clear and got everything shut down, so people could start fixing it.”

Asked for a comment about the incident, senior communications specialist Alison Trouy with Minnesota Energy Resources said, “Our crews were able to safely and quickly shut off natural gas to the building and ventilate it. We determined that there is a leak on customer-owned equipment. Our crews isolated the leak so the customer can make repairs and then we safely restored service to the building.”

As a reminder, Trouy said, “If you ever smell natural gas, leave the area immediately and call us from another location.”

Related Topics: PARK RAPIDS
Robin Fish is a staff reporter at the Park Rapids Enterprise. Contact him at rfish@parkrapidsenterprise.com or 218-252-3053.
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