Thanks to years of public service announcements, most people know that if you smell natural gas inside your home you are supposed to leave without turning anything on or off. But what do you do if the gas leak is outside? Do you stay or do you go?
It depends, say experts from Avista Utilities and the Spokane Valley Fire Department. “Natural gas is lighter than air,” said Avista communications manager Dan Kolbet. “Typically it will dissipate into the atmosphere. If you don’t smell the odor inside your house, you should be perfectly safe. If you can smell it inside, it’s not safe.”
That knowledge was something Josh Zartman was lacking a few weeks ago when a construction crew doing utility work in the street hit a natural gas line near his home in the 10800 block of East Grace Avenue. Zartman, who works in the consumer marketing department at The Spokesman-Review, was at work when the leak occurred but his wife was home with their 8-month-old son.
His wife was told by the construction crew that everything was fine and she didn’t need to leave even though she could smell gas, Zartman said. When Zartman arrived he parked at the road barricade and walked in to escort his wife and son out. He could smell the gas as he walked. “It was so strong,” he said. “I had a headache from just smelling the gas. You could see it coming out of the hole. It wasn’t a small leak by any means. It was just a big mess.”
Zartman said he tried to call Avista for advice on what to do but wasn’t given helpful information. “They never did give me a definitive answer on whether we should leave or not,” he said. “I grabbed just what we needed for my son and left. We were afraid any little spark would send the neighborhood up in flames.”
This year Spokane Valley Fire Department crews have responded to several broken natural gas lines, whether from some sort of construction work in the road or a homeowner who got careless with a pick ax. Spokane Valley Fire Battalion Chief Stan Cooke gave the same advice as Kolbet. It’s fine to stay in your home if you don’t smell anything, but you should leave if you smell the odor of rotten eggs, he said.
The reason is that once the gas is inside your home, it can’t be ventilated until the leak outside is stopped. It’s rare for explosions to occur with outside leaks, though firefighters recommend that if you are evacuated you do it on foot and not try to start a car.
But fires and explosions can and do happen if gas is trapped inside a home. Cooke said he knows of a crew in Oregon that entered a home where there was a natural gas leak and there was an explosion. “It didn’t kill them, but it blew them all outside,” he said. “It melted their helmet shields. That’s how hot it got.”
Cooke said he responded to the gas leak on Grace Avenue and the department’s incident commander made the decision to order an evacuation of a few homes closest to the leak before Cooke arrived. The decision on whether or not to order an evacuation is made each time based on the circumstances, including whether or not the broken line is residential or commercial, he said. “If it was a commercial line, you have exponentially more gas that’s going to leak,” he said.
Kolbet said he recommends people call 811 at least two business days before they do any digging and someone will come out and mark the locations of various utilities. Many of the line breaks are caused by contractors even though the gas lines are marked. Sometimes the markings are not exact, he said. “If it’s marked when you start digging, sometimes those marks go away,” he said.
Contractors are also trying to work in a limited area where digging for utility work has to occur, he said. “They’re trying to keep it on the right-of-way,” he said. “They’re digging as close as they can.”
In 2009 there was $400,000 in damages caused by what Avista calls “dig-ins,” Kolbet said. “It is a major concern,” he said.