More than 60 fire-and-rescue and HAZMAT personnel responded Saturday to a home on Johnny Moore Lane in Clifton after a grass-mowing accident ignited a 500-gallon propane gas tank.
According to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, elderly resident Joe Templeton was mowing his grass with a Bush Hog tractor, around noon, when the mower hit the tip of the tank. Fire shot out, causing minor burns to one of his hands.
"As I came out to my front doorstep, I could see the flames 20-25 feet high, burning a tree between the propane tank and the garage," said neighbor Steve Mestraud. "I went back inside, got my fire extinguisher and called 911."
He then jumped over the fence of his horse paddock and rushed across the street to Joe and Pat Templeton's home. "I saw it was a serious fire, out of control," said Mestraud. "I ran into their house through the front door and yelled, 'Anyone home? Do you know you've got a fire out the back?'"
The Templetons did, since the tank — containing fuel to heat their furnace — is 70-100 yards from the back of their house, near the garage. Joe, grown son Kevin and Mestraud went outside, and Kevin moved two cars away from the garage and the nearby flames.
"Joe and I prepared the hose to fight the fire," said Mestraud. "I didn't know the gas tank was on fire. I just knew it was a big fire." But they never did use the hose — or the extinguisher, either. "Joe's wife Pat had talked to the fire department, and she came outside and told us not to fight the fire, but to back off, in case the tank exploded," said Mestraud.
He said Joe had already turned off the gas taps to the house, and fire department spokesman Raul Castillo said his quick thinking turned out to be a good thing. "We do not recommend people take action on their own; we tell them to evacuate and call 911," said Castillo. "But I think his action helped because it helped contain the spread of the fire and prevent other possible injuries and explosions."
An ambulance transported Templeton to Inova Fairfax Hospital for treatment. Said Mestraud: "He had gotten his hair, hands and nose singed a bit."
Meanwhile, firefighters, rescue workers and hazardous-materials (HAZMAT) units responded from all over the county. They included engine units from fire stations in Clifton, Centreville (Station 17), Fair Oaks, Chantilly, Fairview, Pohick and Fox Mill, a rescue unit from McLean, the battalion chief from Fairfax City and HAZMAT units from the Oakton and Edsel Road stations. Canteen units from Centreville and Springfield came, too.
"Twenty units responded initially because of the potential for explosion," said Castillo. "And we didn't know how many people were injured." The decision was made to let the fire burn itself out, and the blaze lasted 18 hours, with some 10 firefighters remaining to monitor it. Said Mestraud: "It burned 5 or 6 feet high all night."
"The shutoff valve and the entire integral valve system of the tank was inoperable [because of the damage caused by the mower]," explained county Battalion Chief Bill MacKay. "So we couldn't offload [the fuel] and couldn't turn it off or accelerate the process to get rid of it sooner."
"So the safest thing to do was to let it burn because, if we put it out, we wouldn't have seen where the vapor went," he continued. "With it burning, we could see where the propane was and didn't have to guess where it was migrating. Propane, being heavier than air, would have hugged the ground and could have possibly found an ignition source — even a car driving by, remote from the tank, itself. The tank was only about 100 yards from the road."