When the Aspen Fire Protection District arrived on scene in the West End to contain a garage fire around 10:30 a.m. Sunday, it was the second time that morning the entity had sent responders to the neighborhood.
About four hours before the Pitkin County Regional Dispatch Center received the call reporting the fire at 621 W. Francis St., AFPD responded to a call reporting a natural gas smell at 626 W. Francis St.
While the investigation regarding the fire is ongoing, initial suspicions suggest that it was a natural gas leak that caused the explosive fire that sent the 76-year-old homeowner to a Denver hospital for injuries he sustained.
“We did send an engine over at 6:26 a.m.,” AFPD district administrator Nikki Lapin said. “There was a tenant staying at the home who met with the firefighters. She had said she had smelled it earlier, but when they went there, neither the firefighters nor the tenant could smell it at that time.”
According to an AFPD report on the early morning incident, two responding firefighters scoured the property and surrounding area with a Bacharach Leakator, a hazardous-location certified combustible gas detector.
“It’s a more specialized one,” Lapin said of the equipment.
AFPD Chief Rick Balentine noted that given the nature of natural gas, it’s perfectly plausible that someone could make a call reporting a smell at 6:05 a.m. and there not be a trace of it by the time responders arrive at 6:26, such as in Sunday’s case.
“Natural gas is about six tenths the weight of air,” he said. “If it’s wafting in the air, it can be there one moment and be gone the next. We had two firemen respond. They did use gas detectors; they didn’t locate anything. Had they located something, we certainly would have upped the game, but with our gas detectors, they didn’t locate anything.”
Several hours later, at 10:32 a.m., the call came in reporting the garage fire just across the street from where the first call came.
AFPD immediately dispatched 17 firefighters and three engines, one ladder and one rescue, according to a release. Roaring Fork Fire, responding to a request for mutual aid, arrived with one engine and three firefighters, and Aspen Police came on scene with four police officers and two community response officers. Black Hills Energy, too, sent three technicians.
Additionally, Aspen Ambulance responded with four paramedics and two ambulances and transported the homeowner, who had been in the garage at the time the fire erupted, to Aspen Valley Hospital. From there, he was careflighted to Denver.
“The fire is believed to be related to a natural gas leak that occurred when heavy snow and ice fell from the roof of the garage and damaged [the] natural gas meter below,” the release says.
If that hypothesis is accurate, Balentine said, then the weight of natural gas is even more relevant.
“In this type of case, if it was the snow that came down … possibly, some of that gas escaped through the snow and maybe possibly even filtered out [into the surrounding air],” he said, though he added that he’ll be meeting with the fire marshal on Tuesday to “make sure we’re on the same page” and monitor the ongoing investigation. “We don’t really know that for sure.”
While AFPD does not have a standard operating guideline specific to gas leaks, Balentine said, responders on Sunday followed all protocol regarding structure fires, which was contained in about 90 minutes — and contained to the garage, sparing the affiliated home.