LINCOLN, Calif. (CBS13) — A day filled with tension and delays may have yielded good news after all.

The burning propane tanker that forced tens of thousands of Lincoln residents to evacuate for fear of a catastrophic explosion is already nearly empty of liquid, and firefighters say they hope they only need to burn up the remaining vapor to stabilize the situation.

Lincoln Fire Chief Dave Whitt had warned that a failure in the 29,000-gallon tank could have resulted in a fireball several hundred yards wide that would have flung shrapnel as far as a mile, but the proposed “hot tap” method to drain the burning tanker proved unnecessary.

A special team from Houston had flown into the area and responded to the Northern Propane Energy yard Wednesday morning to assess the situation and prepare to cut the outer layer of the tank and weld a pipe to its side. After encountering a number of problems throughout the day, experts determined that the tank had far less liquid propane remaining than previously thought.

Virtually all of the liquid had already leaked out of the tanker by Wednesday evening, and rather than attempting the risky operation of welding pipe to a tanker filled with vapor, firefighters chose to begin filling the tank with aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), a fire suppression substance that is heavier than propane and should force the remaining vapors to the top, where it will be burned off, Whitt said.

The operation could be finished by the end of Wednesday night and the evacuation order could be lifted as soon as midnight Thursday, Whitt said, stressing that it was a fluid situation and that the time could still change.

The development comes as welcome news to residents of the 4,000 to 5,000 homes within a one-mile radius of the rail yard who were ordered to evacuate Tuesday. Many residents had been told to expect staying away from their homes for as long as 48 additional hours.

The entire West Placer Unified School District delayed its first day of school due to the emergency.

A rail yard worker suffered flash burns when the fire flared up Tuesday, but has since been released from the hospital. Investigators said the cause of the fire appears to be accidental.

Highway 65 near Lincoln was closed immediately after evacuations were ordered. There is no estimated time for the road’s reopening.


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