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Schellville rocked by fire, propane explosion

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When fire broke out around 12:30 p.m. Tuesday at Sonoma Pacific Company on Fremont Drive, it was the third time since 2007 that the wood pallet factory was the scene of what some believe could become a potentially catastrophic fire near Schellville.

The wood fire spread quickly, and ignited a 1,000-gallon propane tank which exploded in a fireball, sending black smoke into a clear Sonoma sky. The tank itself was hurled up and away from the blast, landing over 500 feet away in the middle of the eastbound lane of Fremont Drive, aka Highway 121.

Four local fire stations responded to the fire – from Schell-Vista, Sonoma Valley, Novato, Glen Ellen – and called for Cal Fire helicopter support. Their helicopter circled the scene of the fire, dropping load after load of water on the burning rubble to quell the flames.

“The fire was reported in the pallets at the back of the yard,” said Steve Akre of Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue at the scene. “As you can imagine the arrangement of fuel with the pallets lends itself to very rapid fire spread and a lot of heat.”

Akre added, “the propane tank blew as a result of the heat and the fire impinging on that tank.” He said there were no reported injuries.

The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office ordered the mandatory evacuation of all residents within a half mile of the fire at 1180 Fremont Drive. The evacuation was lifted at 2:50 p.m.

PG&E reported on Friday that a transmission line and a distribution line at the site, at 1180 Fremont Dr., were "impacted by the fire. "In addition, PG&E crews de-energized additional lines (powered down) at the request of the local incident commander for the safety of the fire fighters," said PR&E spokesperson Deanna Contreras.

In all, power to approximately 156 customers was affected. Most of them were restored by 6:15 pm the same evening but eight were impacted until 4:45 pm the Wednesday afternoon and one until 6:30 pm that evening.

The CHP closed nearby roads during the incident, including Highway 121 between Broadway and Eighth Street East. The disruption of Highway 121, a primary artery between Sonoma and Napa counties, led to lengthy afternoon traffic congestion on Arnold Drive, Stage Gulch Road and Adobe Road.

As a result of the Tuesday fire, the polling place located at the Schell-Vista Fire Station was closed at midday and relocated to the Seventh Day Adventist Church on Broadway.

The 12:30 p.m. fire burned about 10 percent of the operation, said Schell-Vista Fire chief Ray Mulas.

Thomas Thompson, who has owned Sonoma Pacific since 2016, said fire officals told him the fire was much smaller than one five years ago due to safety equipment onsite. He estimated total damage at about $200,000, largely because a heat treatment chamber was destroyed.

The fire was fully contained by 5 p.m., said Akre, who helped supervise the fire response.

The Fremont Drive pallet business was also damaged in a small fire in 2007 and again in a larger one in 2013. The 2013 fire – which burned some 40 acres of nearby grassland – also had a propane explosion.

Some residents of the area are concerned that the repeated fires at the location could pose a hazard to a number of LPG tankers occasionally stored nearby, by arrangement with SMART and the Northwestern Pacific Railroad. Rail officials have insisted there is no danger.

“But next time we could have a very different outcome,” said Schellville resident Norman Gilroy, in a letter to the Index-Tribune. “Just a single ember carried by the wrong wind, and the explosion there would make that exploding propane tank projectile we saw on TV this time look small.”

Fire officials did not disclose a cause for the fire, noting that the insurance company would be making its own investigation in the coming days.

As of Thursday, Thompson said, “The company is operating again and the 42 employees are busy making pallets and fulfilling orders.”

Note: An earlier version of this story did not include complete information about the power outages in the area as a result of the fire.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.