A section of downtown Vancouver and several buildings were evacuated for more than two hours Thursday following a ruptured gas meter at a construction site at Washington and Sixth streets.
Vancouver-based Holland Partner Group, which is building the south apartment tower at the Vancouvercenter complex, said a forklift operator damaged the regulator for an on-site natural gas meter at about 8:15 a.m. Thursday.
The Vancouver Fire Department and Vancouver Police Department cordoned off a section of downtown around the area, with assistance from Clark County Fire District 6. Emergency responders immediately blocked off streets and sidewalks, started evacuations and kept people from entering the area.
Doug Linn, an employee at the Little Conejo restaurant across Washington Street from construction site, said he heard a loud hissing sound — almost a roar — and a strong smell of gas from the site.
“About then, we noticed the fire trucks,” he said.
NW Natural was called to the scene, and the gas was shut off. Capt. Pete Adams of the Vancouver Fire Department said there were no fires or injuries from the incident.
Residents and employees at Vancouvercenter and Smith Tower were evacuated, along with employees of numerous businesses in the area. Large groups lingered on sidewalks and in Esther Short Park.
Adams said he didn’t have an estimate of how many people were evacuated, but he agreed that it appeared to be several hundred.
Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency used Public Alerts, where residents receive automated messages via phone, text or email, to advise people to evacuate immediately.
Cindy Stanley, an emergency management coordinator at the agency that provides 911 dispatch and emergency management, said almost 3,000 messages were sent to people who either have land lines in the area or have gone onto the agency’s website, cresa.org, to sign up for Public Alerts.
“They can self-register and decide how they want to get their message,” Stanley said.
With a gas leak of unknown proportions, it’s important to get people out as soon as possible, she said.
“It’s not something we have to do very often, luckily,” she said. “We’ve had very few ‘You need to get out now’ notices.”
Firefighters went door to door to clear buildings near the construction site, Adams said. Natural gas is lighter than air and could enter an apartment or other building through an open window, which caused firefighters and NW Natural to search for pockets of trapped gas, he said.
“If it finds an ignition source, that’s when we have big problems,” he said.
Shortly before 11 a.m., fire officials reported that all evacuated buildings had been cleared and occupants were being allowed back in. All streets in the area were reopened.
Adams said firefighters don’t always have a clear understanding of a situation when arriving.
“That takes time to develop,” he said. “We’re going to err on the side of caution and evacuate people.”
Holland announced at 1 p.m. that NW Natural was repairing the damage and service was expected to be restored within several hours. Work already had resumed on the construction site, the company said.
“Safety is a top priority at Holland, both for those on our project site and in the surrounding community,” the company said in a statement. “We are conducting an investigation to ensure that all precautions are taken to prevent similar incidents in the future.”
This is the second incident at the construction site in the past 10 days. A construction worker died from injuries suffered during a Sept. 4 fall at the site. The construction worker was employed by Timberland Inc., a Vancouver-based wood framing company and a subcontractor on the Vancouvercenter project.
The worker survived the fall and was taken to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. The worker continued to receive care at the hospital but later died.