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Significant snowpack presents threat

Placer County Executive Officer Thomas M. Miller on Thursday signed an order declaring the presence of propane leaks beneath significant snowpack at numerous sites a threat to public safety. This order encompasses not only the Serene Lakes Subdivision area near Donner Summit, but other eastern Placer County communities.

The order authorizes the Director of Environmental Health to notify landowners to abate leaking propane systems expeditiously. The notices, which started going out yesterday to individual property owners, seek the owner’s cooperation with the abatement. Abatement options and deadlines to respond will be identified in the notice and will be based on the County’s assessment of the level of safety risk posed by that particular owner’s propane tank system leak. Should the property owner not respond to the notice, or choose not to proceed to abate in accordance with the notice, the CEO’s order authorizes the County  to gain entry onto  the property to abate the leak first through owner permission, and if that fails, through the court. If the County must abate the leak, the County will seek reimbursement from the property owner of all costs of abatement at a later date and possibly lien the property.

The action by Miller came after authorization by the Board of Supervisors on Mon., April 11, 2011, at its regularly scheduled meeting in Northstar at Tahoe. The Board authorized a Proclamation of Local Emergency that was issued by the Assistant Director of Emergency Services on April 8, 2011. The CEO’s order will enable County staff to take whatever actions are necessary to ensure that leaking propane problems in the community are remedied in a timely manner.

Voluntary evacuation order

A voluntary evacuation order is in place for the Serene Lakes community and will remain in place until further notice. Placer County Sheriff’s Office will maintain a presence in the Serene Lakes for the duration of the evacuation.

An extraordinary snowfall this season has left propane tanks buried under dozens of feet of snow. The tremendous weight of the snow has caused the plumbing ย– valves, regulators and piping ย– that connects the supply tanks to the houses to break and leak. Leaking propane is believed responsible for an explosion on April 8, 2011, that demolished an unoccupied three-story cabin in Serene Lakes. That blast sent debris flying hundreds of feet.

Additionally, there have been more than two dozen homes in the development that have been affected by leaking propane. Propane, which is heavier than air, behaves much like water and will collect and flow downhill through snowbanks. The Board-ratified Proclamation and the order have identified the gas leaks as posing an immediate threat to the public health and safety in Placer County.

Snow Pack

As the huge snow pack begins to melt, it is settling on the tank plumbing and may cause additional leaks. Snow needs to be completely removed, from the top, beneath and around the tank and plumbing.  Due to the potential safety risks with leaking propane tanks, property owners with tanks buried under significant snow pack are asked to first contact the Department of Environmental Health before initiating any snow clearing activities around a propane tank.

As propane has been detected at residences in parts of the Serene Lakes, electricity has been shut off by public utilities. Electricity can provide an ignition source for leaked propane.

Placer County, along with the Truckee Fire Protection District is staffing an Evacuation Information Center at the Summit Restaurant and Bar in Soda Springs. The Center, at 22002 Donner Pass Rd., is open daily from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m.  Residents, visitors and contractors are asked to stop at the Center during its business hours and obtain a placard that will identify those with a legitimate reason to be in the Serene Lakes community. For additional information, please call 530-886-5310.

Anyone who smells propane should immediately exit the area to a safe distance of 300 feet and call 9-1-1. They should avoid starting engines, turning on cooking and heating appliances and fans, or using other ignition sources. Flipping on a light switch can provide a spark.

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