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Fire near natural gas pipeline forces evacuation of 4,000 people in Bay Area

An evacuation order that affected some 4,000 people in the San Francisco Bay Area was lifted Thursday after crews extinguished a fire threatening an underground natural gas pipeline.

The situation started with a small vegetation fire about 6 p.m. Wednesday in the Bay Point community. Contra Costa County firefighters extinguished the blaze and left. About an hour later, they got another call about a fire inside a vault that houses gas pipelines operated by Chevron, said Assistant Fire Chief Terence Carey.

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“It was realized very quickly that there was a high probability of danger,” he said during a news conference Thursday morning.

Fire officials are investigating what started the fire. A Pacific Gas and Electric Co. representative said the utility had received reports that the blaze may have been sparked by an electrical line that fell after possibly being struck by birds.

Authorities evacuated 1,400 homes in Bay Point on Wednesday night as a precaution. All evacuation orders were lifted by 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Contra Costa County Deputy Fire Chief Lewis Broschard told reporters.

Some residents were awakened by officials pounding on their doors beginning at 11 p.m. Wednesday and continuing through the early morning hours, telling them to evacuate immediately.

Pablo Jimenez, 33, his wife and two daughters were the last residents to leave their neighborhood early Thursday after previous knocks on his door failed to wake them.

“It was a very nerve-racking awakening for me and my family,” he said. “We had no idea what was going on.”

He said that he grabbed his 7-year-old and 2-year-old daughters from their beds, and that the family left in their pajamas to stay with his brother, who lives a few miles away, outside the evacuation zone. Others spent the night at a church and the Bay Point BART station, where many residents slept in their cars.

Jimenez has lived in Bay Point, a suburb of San Francisco that attracts families looking for affordable housing, for two years. He and several of his neighbors didn’t realize they live near a natural gas pipeline until they were evacuated.

“It’s a little more concerning knowing there’s a pipeline and that there’s been fires that have started quickly nearby,” he said.

Chevron crews worked overnight to reduce pressure on the gas line inside the vault, which resulted in a loud, shrieking noise that was described by fire officials as “a jet-engine-like sound” emanating from the area.

On Thursday, officials planned to purge the remaining natural gas from the line and inject it with nitrogen, which will extinguish the fire, said Chevron project coordinator Cary Wages.

Wages said the area is no longer at risk of an explosion, a possibility that had concerned officials overnight.

It is not clear when residents will be able to return to their homes. Officials anticipated it could be several hours before the fire in the vault was put out. After that, fire authorities will inspect the area to ensure it is safe.

Willow Cove Elementary School in Pittsburg was closed Thursday because of the evacuations.

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“We’re very sympathetic to the citizens displaced from their home, but we want to ensure their safety,” Carey said.

7:40 p.m.: This article was updated with the evacuation orders being lifted.

2:05 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

11:15 a.m.: This article was updated with an interview with an evacuated resident.

This article was originally published at 8:25 a.m.

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