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2016-04-21

Lightning bolt hits Elm Pass storage tank

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

“I was coming home from work on Elm Pass Road and saw a lightning bolt come straight down out of the sky and then everything turned red,” said Bandera County resident Shiloh Edwards. “When I realized the lightning had caused a fire, I called 9-1-1 immediately.”
At 8:43 pm, Sunday, April 17, lightning had struck near storage tanks and a natural gas drilling operation and well in the 1100 block of Elm Pass, according to Fire Marshal John Stith. “A caller had reported that a tree was on fire, but when firefighters with the Bandera Volunteer Fire Department arrived at the scene, they discovered a storage tank in flames. The incident commander from Bandera immediately called for backup,” Stith said in an interview on Monday, April 18.
Responding units included fire departments from Castle Lake, Lakehills, Lake Shore, Medina, Pipe Creek and Tarpley.
The area in question on Elm Pass, just off Highway 173 North, includes a natural gas well and several storage tanks that hold “condensate,” according to Stith. As he explained, “When natural gas is pumped out of the ground, it’s separated from its condensation component – or ‘condensate.’ The highly flammable condensate, which is the consistency of gasoline, is then stored in separate tanks.” The lightning bolt apparently scored a direct hit on one of the pair of storage tanks.
According to Stith, the massive electrical charge had shattered parts of the tank, leaving pieces strewn on the ground. “The firefighers were concerned because they didn’t know how much condensate was being stored in the tank,” Stith said, adding, “Another problem was the proximity of a second tank that was within six feet of the first one. That was their biggest concern.” He estimated both tanks have a storage capacity of 16,000 gallons each.
Luckily, the Pipe Creek VFD had just purchased a truck equipped with a compressed foam delivery system, which made fighting this type of fire more efficient. “The foam helped them extinguish the fire,” Stith said. “Although the second tank was damaged from the heat, it never caught on fire and there was never a fear that the tank would explode.”
He officially pronounced the fire “out” by 10 pm, noting, “The fire ran out of product (fuel) and we ran out of foam.” Stith continued, “We had enough trucks on the scene to provide continual streams of water, along with the compressed foam, onto that second storage tank,” Stith added, “The whole thing went smoothly and we had no injuries.”
Additionally, he said that a call to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio requesting a larger foam truck, as well as one to the Kerrville Fire Department for a ladder truck was cancelled after it became apparent that county firefighters had the blaze under control.
And, social media rumors to the contrary, there was never a danger of an explosion and no “official” evacuation took place, Stith said. “The natural gas component of the operation never caught fire.”
However, four families in the area vacated their homes after learning about the fire. They congregated at the intersection of Highway 173 and Elm Pass. A deputy with the Bandera County Sheriff’s Office suggested it wasn’t a safe place to stay due to all the first responder vehicles in the area. At the unidentified deputy’s recommendation, the families relocated to the parking lot of the jail and justice center until given the all clear to return to their residences.
Stith said that notifications about the incident had been filed with the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environment Quality. “Personnel with those two agencies should determine whether additional follow-up and any cleanup is required,” Stith said.