Explosion: Fire investigators move in, as safety checks start on homes
London Free Press

The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office and London firefighters on Thursday sifted through rubble covering the road, sidewalk and lawns around a Woodman Avenue house that was leveled by an explosion and resulting blaze a day earlier.

With more than 100 homes on and around Woodman Avenue evacuated, and natural gas shut off to more than 50 of them, it could be days — if not weeks — before all the displaced Londoners get the green light to return to the street in their Old East Village community.

“We want to make sure that these homes are still on their foundations, that they’re still structurally sound, before we let people back in,” Deputy Fire Chief Jack Burt said.

The early outlook was surprisingly positive: Late Thursday, city hall reported all but 12 of the evacuated homes have been cleared for residents to return.

The other 12 are in the worst-hit area, including 10 homes on Woodman and two on nearby Charlotte Street.

Water and electricity have been restored to all addresses except the 12, and homes on Woodman will be without natural gas service until Friday morning, the city said.

The epicentre is 450 Woodman, where a car slammed into the house and severed a gas line late Wednesday. Up to nine other homes suffered serious damage, fire officials said at a morning press conference.

Early estimates peg the destruction in the eight-figure range, tens of millions of dollars. Dozens of people spent the early morning hours at an emergency evacuation centre at a nearby community centre, but all were quickly moved to hotels.

The Ontario Fire Marshal — called in to investigate fires that kill or cause serious injuries, have damages over a half million dollars, or were caused by explosion, among other triggers — sent five officials to London to probe the powerful explosion.

Two investigators, two supervisors and a fire engineer will investigate what sparked and fuelled the blaze that soared high into the night sky and that one witness called a “ball of flame.”

Though a gas line was severed after a car crashed into the house — about 25 minutes before the explosion — Enbridge Gas wouldn’t confirm whether that was the source of the spiraling flames.

“We know that a gas meter was hit by a vehicle and that natural gas was involved, however we do not wish to speculate on what may have contributed to the subsequent fire and explosion as this remains under investigation,” Andrea Stass, the company’s communications manager, said in an e-mailed statement.

Fire crews, along with a structural engineer, started to review homes on the outskirts of the evacuation zone, which stretches from Quebec to Charlotte streets and Dundas Street to Lorne Avenue, on Thursday after all the fires and hot spots were put out.

It took a crew of 50 firefighters to fight the flames overnight. Twenty remained Thursday morning to continue spraying streams water on still-smoking roofs.

Firefighters and city hall building officials are testing homes on the perimeter for safety to gauge whether residents can return, then moving inward toward the more seriously damaged homes, Burt said.

The damage caused by a powerful explosion and flames that ripped through an Old East Village street Wednesday is far from predictable, he added.

Some homes will be in perfect condition while others, even further away, saw broken windows, Burt said.

“It’s fairly random, but there’s a significant amount of damage throughout this entire area.”

He couldn’t put a timeline on exactly how long it will take before area residents can go back to their homes, but said firefighters are working hard to get to that stage as soon as possible.

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