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Tanker Fire Burns Four Homes, Hundreds Evacuated

February 14, 1991

CARMICHAEL, Calif. (AP) _ Gasoline from a wrecked tanker truck turned the storm drains of an affluent suburb into rivers of flame Wednesday, burning four homes, injuring three people and forcing the evacuation of 300 residents.

An eyewitness said the driver of the truck was speeding about 3 a.m. and lost control on a sharp curve on a major artery through the Sacramento suburb, according to California Highway Patrol spokesman Bob Carlson.

Fuel from the 8,400-gallon tanker poured into open ditches and from there into the storm drain system’s underground pipes. Officials said they didn’t know what ignited the gasoline.

″The creek behind us caught fire and we grabbed the kids and ran. Manholes down the street were exploding and flying off. You could feel the rumble follow us up the street. It was strange,″ said resident Lisa Daum.

Flames roared back to the truck, which exploded in a fireball in front of firefighters, police and the driver, who had climbed out of the wreckage. Hundred-foot tall ribbons of flame rose from the open ditches, igniting houses, fences and parked vehicles.

Secondary explosions in the pipes created an underground inferno, blowing manhole covers off and spewing fire skyward for blocks around.

″We were asleep in our apartment and heard stuff blowing up outside. We looked out and it was cars exploding in a parking lot,″ said Michelle Sumrall, who fled in her bathrobe. ″It looked like the Fourth of July.″

″I couldn’t figure out what was going on,″ said resident Jeff Smith. ″It looked like a war zone.″

Two homes were destroyed and two others were damaged as more than 100 firefighters used water and foam to keep dozens of spot fires away from other homes. The average house in the neighborhood is valued at about $250,000. Officials estimated the total fire damage at more than $1 million.

A convalescent hospital, several apartment complexes and a two-mile square area of homes was evacuated. A Red Cross shelter was set up at a nearby high school.

Carlson identified the driver as 35-year-old John David Parker of Sacramento. The truck is owned by Calzona Tankways Inc. of Phoenix.

Investigators have yet to decide what caused the accident, Carlson said. The driver wasn’t arrested.

Parker suffered minor injuries, a firefighter was overcome by smoke and heat, and a resident was treated for chest pains, said Battalion Chief Dennis Plessas of the American River Fire Protection District.

″It was absolutely amazing that there weren’t more injuries. It’s extremely lucky there wasn’t a major medical catastrophe here,″ Plessas said.

By nightfall, the flames had been extinguished and all the residents had been allowed to return to their homes. Electricity remained off in the area to reduce the hazard of more fires.

″We have two major problems remaining here, containing the fuel from reaching the American and Sacramento rivers, and putting out the fires in the underground (drain) system,″ Plessas said.

The accident occurred about half a mile from the American River and about 10 miles from where the American and Sacramento rivers meet.

Firefighters built earth and sand berms to halt the flow of gasoline toward the rivers. Emergency workers planned to vacuum pump the gasoline into tanker trucks.

Next, officials say they must determine whether the pipes were damaged and whether contaminated soil must be removed.

Update hourly