Attleboro, MA – It doesn’t take much.
A sudden whiff of gas, and then someone lights a match, flips on a light or dials a cellphone. In a split-second, a home or business explodes, leaving behind bomb-like destruction and – in the worst cases – deadly consequences to human life.
While a recent pattern of propane and natural gas fires and explosions in Eastern Massachusetts has spared the Attleboro area, local fire officials are urging vigilance by homeowners and contractors to prevent future tragedies.
“You get gas freely flowing into a building, the right mixture of gas and oxygen and add a source of ignition and you get something that’s truly devastating,” Foxboro Fire Chief Roger Hatfield said.
Last month, a Florida couple who had just moved into a Franklin condominium complex was killed when their home exploded.
Firefighters from Norfolk, Plainville and Wrentham were among those who fought the resulting fire.
Officials are continuing to investigate whether leaking propane gas could have been responsible.
In Taunton, an explosion occurred Oct. 25, when a house quickly filled with gas. Officials traced the explosion to an occupant attempting to make a water heater repair. Luckily, the woman escaped.
In Elizabeth, N.J., six miles southwest of Newark, one person was killed and 15 injured in a gas explosion Nov. 10 that forced the evacuation of surrounding buildings.
In August, a technician was injured while installing a new propane furnace in New Braintree when leaking gas was ignited by a water heater pilot.
In Medfield, homes and local recreation fields had to be evacuated when a backhoe struck a gas line, causing a fire. No injuries were reported.
“Gas is used in a huge percentage of American homes. And, as such, it’s very safe” North Attleboro Fire Chief Ted Joubert said. “But it has to be handled with care. When there is a leak, it can be one of the scarier calls.”
From 2007 to 2011, U.S. fire departments responded to an average 51,000 gas-related fires per year, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
Almost all involved natural or LP gas. Those fires resulted in an estimated 168 civilian deaths, 1,028 injuries and $644 million in property damage each year.
While natural and LP gas are both flammable, gas becomes an explosion hazard when it is released into a confined area – like a house – and combined with oxygen and a source of ignition, said Columbia Gas spokesman Don Dinunno.
Earlier this year, a mapping study prompted by a new state law showed thousands of gas leaks in the Bay State due to aging pipes, including about 200 in the Attleboro area. Columbia Gas says it has an “aggressive plan” to replace its infrastructure, including $45 million invested in 2015.
But it’s not those leaks that are to blame for most catastrophic incidents, company officials say.
Most accidents involving gas are the result of construction damage, Dinunno said, such as when an excavating machine accidentally ruptures a gas pipe. Others can be traced to causes like a technician failing to properly tighten a fitting or a homeowner attempting an amateurish repair.
The severity of New England weather is also to blame, as winter snow can even lead to gas leaks in buildings.
Mansfield Fire Chief Neal Boldrighini said his department had to evacuate an industrial building because a plow accidentally came in contact with snow-covered gas pipes. Boldrighini said property owners with exposed gas supply pipes or meters should make sure those areas are kept clear at all times.
Sadly, many of the most devastating gas explosions and fires might have been prevented.
In 1998, two Attleboro city employees were killed when a backhoe struck a pipe causing a nearby home to explode. Investigation showed that the location of the gas line hadn’t been properly identified by a subcontractor.
Three months later, two people were killed in a gas explosion in Montreal.
In 2010, a Blackstone electrician working on a condo under construction in Norfolk was killed when an explosion leveled the building. The blast was later traced to a propane leak that went undetected because the gas lacked a sufficient amount of chemical odorant added to create the “gas” smell. Had the gas odor been present, the electrician would have been forewarned.
And in 2012 in Springfield, a natural gas explosion destroyed two buildings and damaged 40 others. The explosion injured 21 people, including 12 firefighters, but there were no deaths.
Jennifer Mieth, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Division of Fire Services, says catastrophic gas fires and explosions are relatively rare in the state. But to stay on the safe side, fire prevention experts and local fire chiefs offer several recommendations.
Have gas and other heating equipment regularly tuned up by a professional.
Keep combustible materials away from furnaces and water heaters.
Seek out a qualified professional to install or repair gas pipes or appliances, rather than attempt it on your own.
If you are having someone excavate on your property, state law requires that you or the contractor contact Dig Safe in advance to avoid possibly contacting buried utility pipes.
If you detect the smell of gas, don’t take chances. Immediately leave the building, remove to a safe distance and call 911 and the gas company. Don’t turn on a light switch or flashlight that could ignite leaking gas.