The Day San Bruno Looked More Like a Forest Fire

San Bruno gas explosion
San Bruno gas explosion

My daily commute takes me within a mile or two of the massive San Bruno gas pipeline explosion that rocked the San Francisco Bay Area on Sept. 9. I worked from home that day, avoiding a trip down I-280, the leisurely highway that hugs the Santa Cruz Mountains on a winding route from San Francisco down through San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, through Silicon Valley on its way to San Jose.

Facebook's Palo Alto headquarters is easily reached from the Page Mill Road exit, and the Googleplex is less than a mile off that freeway. At a neighborhood bar on Thursday evening, I looked up at the TV and saw images of huge fireballs leaping into the sky. I asked if that was another forest fire. "No, San Bruno. Gas fire," came the shocking reply.

In California, we're used to forest fires. Not so much an inferno arising from exploding gas pipes under the streets of sleepy surburbia. In some sense, that only four people are known so far to have perished is a miracle. Had the blast happened in the middle of the night when residents were sleeping, the death toll could have been far higher.

Ruptured Water Lines

With an almost eerie historical echo of the 9/11 attacks, the fire scene was a surreal field of charred destruction with 38 homes burned down to their foundations and dozens more torched. Firefighters couldn't attack the inferno effectively immediately after the blast due to ruptures in water lines feedings hydrants near the fire zone.

Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility using the 30-inch high-pressure pipeline, was unable to turn off the flow of gas down the pipe, according to some reports. It took a full 24 hours before the fire area had cooled enough to allow public-safety personnel to get anywhere close to the center of the explosion area. In the skies over the affected area, huge planes dropped loads of fire retardant. This practice, primarily used to fight wildfires is unheard of in urban areas, according to San Francisco firemen.

One firefighter called in to KQED, the San Francisco public radio station and explained that PG&E required a special motorized system to close the so-called gate valve, a mechanism that could block the pipe in case of emergency. That gate valve required a full 100 turns before it was shut -- and couldn't be accessed under conditions of extreme heat.

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This left the fire departments to sit and wait and pray as pressure in the ruptured line slowly bled down, even as more fuel quite literally poured onto the fire. Tales of horrific close encounters with leaping walls of flame filled the local airwaves. Hospitals as far south as Palo Alto and as far North as Santa Rosa made emergency shipments of blood to hospitals closer to the accident.

Time to Trade the Electric Stove?

The media immediately began the obligatory round of questions: Could such a huge explosion happen again? Is our infrastructure safe? All good questions, and many people I know who live not far from the blast zone elected to spend the weekend visiting friends or going somewhere, anywhere else.

Driving home on Friday evening, I passed the Sneath Avenue exit roughly at the same time the explosion had taken place a day earlier. The traffic was unusually light. The sky was a crystaline California blue. No signs of the fire were visible from the road or in the sky.

I drove past Sneath, thinking about the gas stove in my own home, conversations we had had about getting rid of it, swapping for an electric oven. None of this would have mattered in the midst of such a fireball from hell, in inferno so intense that solid homes burned down to the concrete front stoops.