SANFORD, Fla. – A massive fire erupted early Thursday in Sanford when a gas line ruptured, prompting officials to evacuate more than 800 nearby homes.
The fire broke out around 1 a.m. near Michigan Avenue and Oregon Street, west of I-4 near the St. Johns River.
A ball of smoke and flames shot 200 feet into the sky for nearly two hours, with News 6 viewers saying they could see flames and smoke from miles away.
Fire officials said they received so many calls about the fire that they had difficulty pinpointing the exact source of the blaze. Crews discovered the ruptured 12-inch gas line in a remote area near the Black Bear Wilderness Area.
Seminole County officials said went to restore service at 10 p.m. on Thursday. The Florida Gas Transmission vented the line that was damaged.
Officials said only air will be vented, not gas. This caused a loud hissing sound for approximately 30 minutes, according to officials.
Multiple people called 911 to report the blast.
“I don’t know if it’s a house on fire. It was a huge explosion,” one woman said.
She told the operator she looked from her backyard and all she could see was flames.
Another woman described the fire as a “massive blaze.”
“You can’t miss it, it’s over the treeline,” she said.
Florida Public Utilities Co. said the incident involved an interstate pipeline not owned by the company caused FPU to lose its natural gas feed service to customers in parts of Seminole County.
“Areas impacted included Sanford, Longwood, Lake Mary, and Winter Springs. FPU had to proactively interrupt service to some sections of its system to ensure system integrity. FPU took steps to ensure its system was safe and to minimize service interruptions to its customers,” FPU said in a statement. “Crews on the scene worked throughout the day to restore service. At this time, the vast majority of customers have had their service restored and restoration efforts continue."
“We got reports of a structure fire, we got reports of brush fires and there was some limited area of brush fires, but because the winds were only approximately 1 mph, those were very small,” said Seminole County Fire Chief Otto Drozd III.
Drozd said 837 homes were evacuated via reverse 911 calls, however, some neighbors told News 6 they never received a notification.
Cindy and Jay Holdren live a half mile away from where the gas line ruptured.
“We didn’t get that call,” Cindy Holdren said. “My neighbor at the very end of the street got the order to evacuate. We went down to the Black Bear Trail and asked if we should evacuate, and (a first responder) said not necessary right now.”
Others said they received a text message ordering an evacuation, while others were greeted by law enforcement at their front door.
“Woke my roommate up with the police out front and told my roommate we need to evacuate,” neighbor Brad Merten said.
[VIDEO BELOW: View from sky as flames shoot 200 feet into air]
“It was in a very remote area, so from that perspective we were very fortunate," a fire official said. "If this had been in a residential area, the potential for exposure fire to homes could have been very great. That’s why we took the precautionary measure of removing people from their homes until we could get a good handle on it.”
Twenty-three units and 40 firefighters were called to the scene. Neighbors told News 6 the gas line rupturing sounded like a jet plane crashing down.
Pipeline Fire: SCSO Alert 2 responded to a pipeline fire in the Black Bear Wilderness Area overnight. Flames reached an estimated 200 feet before being extinguished. https://t.co/4iF8RDY9ly via @FacebookWatch— Seminole County S.O. (@SeminoleSO) September 10, 2020
The gas line was turned off around 2:30 a.m. and the fire was extinguished. The line was shut remotely, but because the line was so long and pressurized, officials said it can take a while for the flames to dissipate, which is why they shot into the sky for nearly two hours.
It’s not known what caused the gas line to rupture. There was no construction in the area, but static electricity or a lightning strike could be to blame, Drozd said.
The hundreds who were forced to leave their homes were able to go to a nearby Audi dealership where a tent was set up to house them. Some gathered at a nearby gas station. Residents were later allowed to return home.
“I could see through the top of the window -- it was really light outside -- even though it was nighttime still,” Jessica Bonetti said. “I could tell that it was a fire, so I ran back inside and got the cats.”
No injuries were reported and no homes were damaged, although some residents said the blasts shook their windows.
This map shows the area where the gas line ruptured overnight in Seminole County. Fire is out and people have been allowed to return to their homes. Utility crews remain on scene. https://t.co/mzf1ZbQmM2 pic.twitter.com/PEu8AZ1Df0— Mark Lehman (@MarkLehman6) September 10, 2020
FPU posted a statement Thursday morning on its Facebook page, with the headline: Attention FPU Natural Gas Customers in Seminole County, FL.
"We have lost our natural gas feed from the interstate pipeline servicing Sanford, Longwood, Lake Mary, and Winter Springs territories. At this time, we have begun to curtail service to maximize the remaining gas in the system.
"We have begun to interrupt service to intermittent sections of our natural gas systems in Winter Springs and Heathrow. Commercial and residential customers located on Oak Road and 17-92 and Shepard Road and 17-92 in Lake Mary and Alaqua Country Club as well as Alaqua Lakes in Heathrow will experience service interruption.
"Unfortunately, we expect extended delays in restoring natural gas service that could last several days. Other areas may be affected. We will continue to keep our natural gas customers informed as more information becomes available.
“Please know that we will do everything within our power to achieve the best possible outcome for the customers and communities we serve.”
Any customers without natural gas service or customers who smell natural gas should report it to FPU at 1-800-427-7712.
Busy morning with #BreakingNews overnight in Sanford. A ruptured gas line caught fire and sent flames 100+ feet in the air for two hours! More than 800 homes were initially evacuated, but people have been allowed to return after the gas line was capped around 2:30 a.m. pic.twitter.com/fmSP3GxFfZ— Mark Lehman (@MarkLehman6) September 10, 2020