A natural gas explosion most likely caused a two-story log home near Mile 166 Sterling Highway to be completely destroyed on the evening of Dec. 27, Kachemak Emergency Services Area Fire Chief Bob Cicciarella said this week.
“It’s leaning toward the fact that it was gas related,” he said. “It does not appear it was in the street. It appears it was contained somewhere in the house, but that is not 100-percent determined.”
Natural gas explodes when the level of gas rises to between 4 and 15 percent and is then somehow ignited, ENSTAR Natural Gas Communications Manager Lindsay Hobson said. She and Cicciarella both said such explosions are extremely rare.
The explosion that destroyed the home of the Page family is the first natural gas explosion on the lower Kenai Peninsula since ENSTAR brought natural gas to Homer and Kachemak City in 2013, Cicciarella said. The Kachemak Emergency Service Area has about 30 buildings with natural gas.
The Page family home near Mile 166 Sterling Highway is near the service line that brings gas from the North Fork gas fields along the highway and is in the area first served by gas when the line was extended from Anchor Point in 2013.
“I would never have thought something like this happened in our service area,” Cicciarella said. “… We end up having the first incident since gas came down here.”
Dispatchers first received a call at 10:13 p.m. on Dec. 27 from a driver who came upon the debris field in the highway. The explosion rocked homes in the Diamond Ridge and Green Timbers areas and even triggered a seismic station about 2 miles away.
The Pages weren’t home when their house exploded, and no vehicles had been passing by. No one — not even pets — were injured in the explosion.
“I’m just blown away nothing happened there, to tell you the truth,” Cicciarella said of the lack of injuries.
Alaska State Troopers reported damage to nearby homes, but KESA firefighters talked to neighbors and found only minor damage from objects falling off shelves.
No windows were broken, Cicciarella said, though one neighbor said the blast pushed sheetrock nails out of a wall from the house flexing.
Cicciarella said the initial call was of a vehicle accident. When KESA Assistant Chief Joe Sallee responded, at first he couldn’t figure out what was going on, Cicciarella said.
“He said, ‘I remember there was a house there,” Cicciarella said. “… Then he looks over and sees it’s gone. He used the term on the radio ‘There was a home that appears to be obliterated.’”
Debris littered at least 250 feet along the highway, and the blast radius was about 900 feet wide, Cicciarella said. One section of the second floor flew into a field about 200 feet west of the house. The explosion blew tops off of spruce trees, flattened other trees and turned appliances into mangled chunks of metal and plastic. One piece of roof wound up in a tree across the highway. Logs looked like they had been shot from a cannon, Cicciarella said.
“The energy in this explosion was phenomenal,” he said.
The explosion severed a gas service line to the house, blowing away the meter. ENSTAR crews responded quickly and had the line closed off within a half hour, Cicciarella said. No fire resulted from the leaking line. Some polyester material melted, he said.
“There’s so much saturation and energy, it didn’t allow any fire to start,” he said.
Homer Electric Association crews also responded and shut off power. A piece of roof fell on a communications line and pulled it off a pole, but didn’t break the line.
“That was amazing none of those power lines or anything else were taken out by the explosion,” Cicciarella said.
First responders had to check to be sure no one had been injured in the explosion, he said. That was their initial fear — that someone was home or driving by. Because of the leaking gas, however, firefighters didn’t go into the hot zone until it was safe. KESA and troopers also closed the highway not only for safety, but to make sure they weren’t responding to a crime scene. It took until 1:44 a.m. before the highway could be reopened.
“We have to treat everything like it is (a crime scene) until we rule it out,” Cicciarella said. “Every single piece of debris is part of our investigation.”
KESA officials have yet to figure out what caused gas to build up in the home and then ignite. Cicciarella said that could prove hard to figure out because of the devastation. He also said he didn’t know how long the family had been away from the home or how long gas had been leaking.
Hobson said the first sign of a gas leak would be the smell from mercaptan, an additive with an odor similar to rotting eggs. Natural gas is odorless, so suppliers add the chemical to make the gas distinctive.
“I tell people to smell, look, listen and leave,” she said in an earlier interview. “If it smells like rotten eggs, definitely evacuate and give us a call.”
The emergency response number for ENSTAR is 844-763-5542 or 844-SMELL GA(S).
A Facebook video on ENSTAR’s page also gives information on how to detect gas leaks by looking at changes in the turning of meters — something that would be useful for neighbors watching a home while the residents are away. See the video at facebook.com/ENSTARNatGas/videos/510759472668284/.
Firefighters didn’t see footprints or tire tracks in the driveway around the home. A backhoe also blocked off the driveway near the highway and hadn’t been moved.
In a call to Paul Page the day after the explosion, he declined to comment about the incident.
KESA and the Homer Volunteer Fire Department used the news about the house explosion as an opportunity to remind home and business owners to review natural gas safety information. In a press release on Tuesday, Cicciarella and HVFD Interim Chief Robert Purcell offered resources for natural gas safety.
“We want to point natural gas users to official safety information,” Cicciarella said.
“The arrival of natural gas has many economic and environmental benefits,” Purcell said. “We want every user of natural gas to take the time to focus on accurate safety information.”
The chiefs also said propane gas users should review safety information. Natural gas is lighter than air and rises, while propane is heavier than air and settles, creating different concerns.
Information on natural gas can be found at www.enstarnaturalgas.com/safety-education/. Information on propane is at https://propane.com/safety/.