UPDATE: According to KRCR, road closures were lifted this a.m. after PG&E repaired the broken gas line at about 7 a,m.
Thursday p.m.: The first call about the gas leak near Shasta Regional Medical Center Thursday night came from an ambulance crew, shortly after 9 p.m.
“They heard hissing and smelled gas,” said Steve Reilly, battalion chief with the Redding Fire Department, as he worked from his fire truck command post on East Street, just outside Shasta Regional Medical Center.
Reilly said a road construction excavator inadvertently hit and severed a 3-inch natural gas main at East and Tehama streets, spewing a plume of natural gas in the vicinity of the hospital.
Fire trucks, police cars and California Highway Patrol vehicles were positioned throughout the area, which extended from Eureka Way to Tehama Street, and Continental Street to beyond East Street. Barricades closed those streets to all traffic except emergency vehicles.
Although nearby residents were asked to evacuate the area, the hospital was asked to adhere to a “shelter in place” plan.
Reilly said the decision to not evacuate the hospital was made after weighing the risks versus benefits of such a move. He said the conclusion was it was far safer to keep the patients and personnel within the hospital, rather than to move hundreds of people, many in fragile condition, outdoors at night into a potentially hazardous area.
Fire and hospital personnel and engineers were working together to be on the alert for unsafe gas levels or any potential ignition risks. The helicopter was grounded, and remained on the hospital’s roof.
He said that although Shasta Regional Medical Center’s incoming emergencies were being diverted to Mercy Medical Center, the facility was secure, and continued to operate as normally as possible considering the circumstances.
An automated call system – “the communicator” – notified those who lived or worked within that gas-leak zone, and asked them to evacuate.
Reilly said that primarily, the automated system reaches land-line users, though people who’d made previous arrangements to have their mobile numbers included on the automated list would have also received the call.
Though Reilly said he and his team were doing everything within their powers to mitigate the situation and to ensure public safety, he also expressed a significant level of discomfort with the gas leak, its proximity to the hospital, and uncertainty about how the weather might impact the situation.
By about 11 p.m., the smell of natural gas was detectable, especially as a slight breeze stirred the area at about 2-3 miles an hour, a rate that Reilly said actually worked in emergency crews’ favor, as it helped dissipate the gas.
Weather is a significant concern with gas leaks, Reilly said, because it can negatively impact the situation if humidity and or wind levels rise too high, making the gas more volatile. In that event, he said the evacuation area would be broadened.
For that reason, the Redding Fire Department maintained contact with the National Weather Service for ongoing “spot” weather forecasts.
While they watch the weather, he said it could many hours before PG&E crews could get on the scene and make the repairs, and the process might require specialized crews from Shasta and even Tehama and Butte counties.
Gerry Gray, deputy fire chief with the Redding Fire Department, used the back of his truck as his on-site work station as he monitored the weather and the evacuation area from his computer. Part of his job is to provide tech support to the fire department’s incident command center.
“We are just monitoring everything and keeping our fingers crossed that the weather cooperates,” he said.
He said that although gas leaks are not uncommon – his department typically handles two or three a year – having one so close to a hospital was especially problematic.
“About the only thing that would be worse would be a school,” he said.
A Red Cross representative, Nancy Geer, was also on the scene, and said that U-Prep High School on Eureka Way was being set up as a temporary evacuation center for those who needed a place to stay. A RABA bus was available to shuttle people who lacked transportation to the shelter, which would include cots, beverages and snacks. Geer said that she didn’t expect the shelter to be necessary for more than a few hours, adding that typically, less than 10 percent of evacuees seek shelter in Red Cross centers. Most stay with family and/or friends.
Just within the barricaded area at Placer and East streets, a group of young people sat on a staircase outside a Placer Street tri-plex and smoked and talked. When asked if they’d been asked to evacuate, a young man who declined to give his name said they didn’t have a land line to receive an evacuation call, nor were they asked to leave.
“We’ll just hang out and see what happens, I guess,” he said.
Meanwhile, Reilly was thinking ahead to the next day’s Fourth of July holiday, a time when even more visitors flood downtown Redding, and when thousands converge upon the Civic Auditorium lawn to watch fireworks.
He said that if the hard road closures are still in effect by Friday, he’d need to meet with the Freedom Festival representatives to discuss alternate options.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.