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Calif. evacuees go home after rail fire flames die
Calif. evacuees return home after burning propane tanker contained, threat of major blast ends
By The Associated Press

LINCOLN, Calif. (AP) ' Thousands of evacuees began returning home Thursday after fire crews allowed a burning propane rail tanker to burn itself out, ending the threat of a major explosion, authorities said.

"Yay, we get to go home," said 59-year-old Mary-Jane Coon, who was evacuated along with her husband with just the clothes on their backs two days ago. "We're going home right now. My own bed, clean clothes."

Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt said the threat of a major explosion no longer existed in the Northern California city of 40,000 people after fire crews allowed the blaze from the tanker to burn itself out. A mandatory evacuation was lifted around midnight, allowing residents in nearly 5,000 homes to return home.

"Most of them are en route (home) or are there," he said.

But it remains unclear how the tanker caught fire in the Northern Propane Energy yard in Lincoln, Calif., about 30 miles northeast of the state capital. Officials were conducting an investigation on the blaze that had put the entire city on alert since Tuesday.

The tanker fire was surrounded by trucks, other rail cars and storage tanks containing at least 170,000 gallons of additional propane that Whitt said were at risk as the fire burned. A gas pipeline also runs through the area.

One worker at the rail yard was injured in the initial fire and suffered flash burns but has been released from a hospital.

Officials had worked throughout Wednesday in trying to head off the potential failure of the 29,000-gallon tank. Whitt said crews were concerned at the time that a buildup of heat could lead to an explosion that could produce a fireball several hundred yards wide.

An explosion also could throw metal shards up to a mile away. Officials on Tuesday ordered mandatory evacuations within a 1-mile radius.

Fire crews spent Wednesday preparing to undertake a bold maneuver to drain the propane from the burning car. But Whitt said crews opted instead to let the fire burn itself out after determining the car held less propane than previously thought.

"They saw the flames on top get lazier and lazier," he said. "They said, 'you know what, this may be out of product.' Sure enough that's exactly what happened."

The raging blaze had burned out before midnight, but then crews reignited it to allow vapors caught in the tank to also burn away.

Whitt said the tanker was being filled with water and a small amount of foam.

Whitt, who was the first to respond to the fire, said crews were successful in keeping the tanker cool since it caught fire Tuesday.

"If we didn't put water on tank, and protect integrity of tank, outcome would not have been as positive," he said.

He added that crews used up to 5,000 gallons of water per minute to keep the tank cool.

A similar fire in 1973 in Kingman, Ariz., killed 11 firefighters and a gas company worker when a rail car carrying a propane tank exploded. The resulting fireball injured more than 100 others and showered the surrounding area with shrapnel. The propane tanker flew a quarter of a mile and its impact dug a crater 10 feet deep.

Earlier, the American Red Cross said 270 people who were evacuated from around the tanker had taken shelter in three evacuation centers.

On Thursday morning, there were no signs of flames at the propane station. A pair of earth-moving machines raised a cloud of dust.

Carol Lopez, 43, was walking back in to retrieve her car across the street from the propane tanker. She was at work at a head start center when the tanker caught fire.

"The fire department said you've got to get these babies out of here," Lopez said in an interview. "We left our purses, our driver's license, our IDs, everything is in there."

Lopez said she and other staff placed the children into evacuation strollers and reunited them with their parents. She and her family stayed with a brother in Citrus Heights, a suburb about 15 miles away.

She questioned why the propane station operates so close to a residential neighborhood.

"It's just not OK to put something like this next to two schools," Lopez said.

More than 6,000 students missed their first days of classes after the tanker caught fire Tuesday. School officials said class would not begin until Monday.

Lopez said her 7-year old son was disappointed that school did not start this week.

"He wanted to wear his new clothes, so we let him wear his new clothes anyway," she said.


Associated Press writers Judy Lin in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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