Steamboat Springs Fire officials are reminding propane customers to keep their equipment free of ice and snow in the winter, after a gas explosion Wednesday morning killed a 64-year-old Oak Creek man.
Dennis Eugene Harris was at his home at 208 Carbon Ave. when the explosion occurred just after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. The house was leveled in the blast, and Harris is believed to have died of smoke inhalation in the ensuing fire.
Harris, known as Geno or Gene to friends and neighbors, was a shuttle driver for the Routt County Council on Aging.
Investigators determined Thursday that the blast was caused by snow buildup on the house's propane line, Oak Creek Police Chief Russ Caterinicchio said. Neighbors reported smelling propane in the area as early as Monday.
"It looks like it was an accumulation of snow on a propane feed line, which compromised the connection," Caterinicchio said. "There were some fumes that pooled in the sub-basement, and the propane gas exploded."
Investigators are unsure how the fumes ignited, he said, noting that anything from a flame or spark to static electricity buildup could be to blame. Criminal activity has been ruled out as a factor in the explosion, Caterinicchio said.
Propane leaks in the wintertime are most frequently caused by damage to the regulators, which control the flow of the fuel, Oak Creek Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup said.
The typical residential propane customer has a pair of regulators, one on the tank and one on their house, and snow or ice built up around either can compromise their function, Wisecup said. The force of falling snow or ice also can damage the regulators and cause the gas to leak or flow at an unexpectedly high rate.
"Look at your overhang, and keep the areas around the regulators clear," Wisecup said. "If one of the regulators freezes, the gas can free-flow."
Propane is heavier than air, so the leaking fuel tends to settle in low-lying areas, such as crawlspaces, Wisecup said. In some cases, propane leaking from one home will pool in the basement or crawlspace of another residence because it is lower, he said.
Leaks also can be caused if moisture enters the tank during filling, as freezing water can force open the spring-loaded valves that seal the tanks, Wisecup said.
The Oak Creek Fire Protection District receives about a dozen calls each year for propane leaks. Most are resolved quickly and without injury, Wisecup said.
Oak Creek's fire station actually experienced a propane leak the morning of the Carbon Avenue explosion, when one of its propane regulators broke, Wisecup said. The line was safely shut off.
Propane is naturally odorless and colorless, so an odorant is added to the fuel to alert people to leaks.
While the odor serves an important function, it also is to blame for many unfounded leak reports, particularly in the wintertime when people go through their fuel quickly and may not know their tank is approaching empty, Wisecup said.
"When those propane tanks get empty, or even low, all that's left is smell," Wisecup said.
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