More than a dozen people were injured, including four critically, when a gas line ruptured in northwest Fresno, creating a raging fire that halted Highway 99 traffic for several hours on Friday afternoon.
Four were in Community Regional Medical Center in critical condition, including two who were transported from Madera Community Hospital in serious condition, said Community Regional spokeswoman Mary Lisa Russell.
They will be treated at the Leon S. Peters Burn Center, the same facility where Fresno Fire Capt. Pete Dern is still undergoing treatment from burns he sustained when a garage roof gave way beneath him.
Saint Agnes Medical Center spokewoman Kelley Sanchez said the hospital was treating four patients with minor injuries who were expected to be treated and released.
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Of the 13 injured, 11 sustained burns that required hospital treatment, including 10 county jail inmates. One inmate was critically injured and was taken by helicopter to Community Regional.
Three other inmates were treated at the scene and then taken back to the jail. The inmates, who were about 150 to 200 feet from the blast center, were part of a work crew that does routine maintenance at the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation gun range at 7663 N. Weber Ave.
Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said it wasn’t immediately known what caused the explosion. Deputies at the scene said they saw the front-loader driving along the dirt roadway above the range targets just before the fireball erupted at 2:28 p.m.
Kevin Ling, a freelance photographer from the Bay Area, was heading south on Highway 99 in Madera County on his way to visit his girlfriend in Fresno when he first noticed smoke in the distance shortly before 2:30 p.m.
As he got closer, “It looked like it maybe was a refinery on fire,” he said.
From his nearest vantage point on the freeway less than 200 feet away, Ling said he could see flames appearing to engulf the adjacent Union Pacific Railroad freight tracks and fire spreading east of the tracks.
Railroad traffic was halted for a few hours on Friday because of the fire.
“It was huge. Flames were shooting up maybe 150 to 200 feet,” Ling said. “The heat was so intense, you couldn’t stay there for more than a few seconds.”
After the fire was extinguished at 3:01 p.m., officials were able to start assessing the damage.
Mims described the scene as a “crater,” with grass in the surrounding area up through the gun range completely charred. The front-loader involved in the blast was “completely demolished.”
Mims said the county public works employee “was blown from the front-loader” when the explosion occurred.
The man, who was not identified, sustained serious burns, Mims said, but was able to walk to a waiting ambulance that took him to Community Regional.
Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea said the most seriously injured victim suffered burns over 30 percent of his body. His injuries are critical, but he is expected to survive, Perea said.
“They can’t believe there weren’t any fatalities; if you saw the scene, it’s amazing people lived,” Perea said.