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Clearing snow, ice can cause damage to natural gas pipes

Sat., Jan. 3, 2009

Natural gas leaks have become as common as lost gloves as the snow piles up in the Inland Northwest.

While collapsing roofs often break gas pipes or meters, more problems are caused by shovels or snowblowers wielded by those trying to clear away the snow. And an increasing number of breaks are the result of snow and ice falling – or being pushed – from roofs onto gas meters.

“You think of snow as soft and fluffy,” said Avista Utilities spokesman Dan Kolbet. But if there’s ice in that snow, “it’s like an iceberg falling off and smashing into something.”

In Spokane and Coeur d’Alene last month, Avista responded to 50 percent more reports of natural gas problems than in December 2007, Kolbet said. A few of the many problems that resulted:

• In Hayden, a commercial building caught fire Friday after a chunk of ice fell off the roof and sheared a natural gas meter, said Lt. Brad Belmont, of Northern Lakes Fire District. A man inside the building at 11888 N. Reed Road escaped unharmed.

Crews from the same fire district had spent three hours in the same commercial district Thursday, monitoring a broken gas line.

• On Tuesday, Spokane Transit Authority buses were called in to serve as temporary warming shelters when firefighters briefly evacuated 125 children and 46 adults from St. Anne’s Child and Family Center. Gas was leaking into the building from a line broken by people shoveling snow off the roof.

• Shoppers and employees were evacuated from the Sears store at the Spokane Valley Mall for a short time Dec. 27, also because of a gas line broken by those removing snow from the roof.

Kolbet said homeowners need to carefully clear snow from natural gas meters so they’re not damaged by the weight of the snow or inadvertently hit by equipment. That also helps utility workers, if there’s a need to shut off the gas.

And the Spokane Fire Department warns that a buildup of snow can cause the regulator inside a meter to freeze, causing a dangerous increase in gas flows into the house.

Staff writer Becky Kramer contributed to this report.

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