LINCOLN, Calif. (AP) — The risk of an explosion at a rail car fire in Northern California has increased after the propane tank that is burning showed signs of melting, a fire official said on Wednesday.
Despite firefighters' best efforts to cool the tanker with water, it appears to be coming apart, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Daniel Berlant told KCRA-TV.
The 29,000-gallon tanker loaded with liquid propane caught fire midday on Tuesday at a Northern Propane Energy yard in Lincoln, a city of 40,000 north of Sacramento. Fears that it would explode prompted the evacuation of thousands of homes in the area. An explosion could cause a fireball that consumed blocks and hurl large pieces of metal up to a half-mile away, fire officials said.
Berlant said a crack in the tanker would greatly increase the possibility of an explosion.
Firefighters on Tuesday set up four fixed hoses to soak the tanker and to keep its temperature down as the propane burns off.
Trying to directly extinguish the flames shooting into the air from a vent could create a propane gas cloud that could ignite into a fireball, Berlant said.
"Our fear is that not only does that rail car tank explode, but so do the tanks around it and with about a half million gallons of propane in that field," he told KXTV-TV (http://bit.ly/ofmrrQ).
A gas pipeline also runs through the affected area, authorities said.
The American Red Cross has set up three evacuation centers to help people whose homes are inside the mandatory evacuation area, which has been designated as within one mile of the rail car.
Officials told Lincoln resident Roza Calderon that it could be anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks before she could return home.
"They said they would let us know tomorrow," the 26-year-old accountant said late Tuesday. "In the meantime, I think we're just gonna be staying in a hotel."
Arne Kalma wasn't sure if his house was in the evacuation zone. But he left the area after authorities wouldn't allow his wife to drive home.
"Propane is a dangerous thing," the 70-year-old told the Sacramento Bee. "We're over a mile away, but if it explodes, who knows? If they're telling me that it's a dangerous place, I'm not going to argue with them."
Only about 70 percent of those who live inside the evacuation zone had actually left by late Tuesday, Berlant estimated.
"Anybody who chooses to stay behind is risking their life and the lives of their family by doing so," he told KXTV.
Calderon was staying with her husband, daughter and mother at a hotel in Sacramento, about 40 minutes away. Many people seemed to be checking into rooms, and every hotel that Calderon and her family stopped at between Lincoln and Sacramento was full, she said.
Highway 65, a major commuter thoroughfare between Sacramento and Lincoln, was closed Tuesday near the blaze, the California Highway Patrol said. Authorities didn't know when the road would reopen.
The Lincoln Fire Department said the first day of classes — scheduled for Wednesday at 11 schools — was canceled because of the ongoing danger.
It was unclear how the tanker caught fire. A worker who was tending to the tanker was hurt and transported to a local hospital, although details on the extent of the injuries weren't available.