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The scene at 4600 Esperanza in the Quemazon area was that of controlled chaos Thursday, as crews from the fire department, police department and the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities worked together to get a handle on a structural and vehicle fire.
Firefighters concentrated on extinguishing the flames that kept shooting up from the burning minivan, as police worked to ensure that the children and staff from the Quemazon Montessori School were safely bussed away from the scene. Meanwhile, a crew from the DPU worked diligently to locate utilities and shut off the gas to the burning building.
However, the DPU had a rocky start to not only the call, but also to the workday. Earlier in the day, a water line break in White Rock had crews out working to get that under control. Around 3:45 p.m., the DPU received a call to respond to the fire at Quemazon. With an already sparse staff, and the workday ending at 4 p.m., a crew was pulled together and was at the scene within about five minutes.
There was speculation amongst onlookers that the DPU crew could not find the gas line to shut it off, as they quickly dug holes in the ground using shovels. However after surveying the damage, it was determined that the mini van had hit the gas meter before plowing into the Montessori school and as a result, the meter was trapped beneath the burning vehicle. Firefighters worked feverishly to extinguish the fire so the van could be moved off of the meter.
“It was difficult because the wire they attached to send the locator signal (to locate utilities) comes up at the riser at the meter, that’s where you hook up to the locator,” Deputy Utilities Manager Tim Glasgow said. “The van was sitting on the meter and they were unable to get to it.”
Glasgow said the gas line was very small and does not have high pressure, but did have a fair amount of gas coming out, though it did not pose a danger. He said it’s quite common to burn gas off while working on a gas line.
“The danger would have been from the vehicle itself, not the gas explosion. Gas is lighter than air and it goes straight up. They (the fire department) had the place drenched down real good,” he said.
Gas Water Sewer Superintendent Phillip Valdez was on the scene along with DPU employees Jonathan Montoya, Aaron Turner and Estevan Garcia. He said they had all the equipment they needed to do the job, but they had difficulty shutting the gas off because they could not access the riser.
“All the work we did was by hand,” Valdez said. “We had our equipment working on the other situation in White Rock. Once they got the vehicle off there, it took us about 5 minutes (to plug the gas line); being able to assess the situation where the gas is leaking from.” Valdez said that plugging the line drops the gas flow. He also said that after the line was plugged, the DPU crew checked the area for leaks and dug up the service line and capped it off.
“They did a fantastic job in both situations,” Valdez said of the crews. “We worked as a team with the fire department and the police department.”
Glasgow also gave the crew kudos on a job well done. “Under some very difficult circumstances, they did very well. It’s not easy going into a situation like that. We train our guys and they get in there and really do well,” he said.