Update: Tuesday, April 21: Fresno County officials are disputing statements from PG&E that digging by a front-loader operator at a sheriff's gun range on Friday afternoon breached a natural gas line, touching off a blast and fire.
Thirteen people were hurt in the incident, several critically. The fire shut down Highway 99 at the northern edge of Fresno for more than two hours and damaged a nearby rail line.
Over the weekend, PG&E said the explosion and fire were touched off when workers at the gun range "apparently struck" a 12-inch gas pipeline at the site. The utility described the episode as the result of a "dig-in."
But Monday, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims told the Fresno Bee that no digging was going on when the blast occurred:
Mims ... said the operator was using the front loader’s bucket to spread piles of soil along the berm that captures bullets from the shooting range. She added that the loader is not a “digging piece of equipment” and was merely driving on the road near the berm when the gas line ruptured.
“We have no one saying anything was dug up or struck or nicked,” Mims said. “That will be determined at the end of the investigation.”
A statement released Tuesday by the sheriff's office adds:
Contrary to published reports, there are no witnesses reporting that digging or excavating was taking place at the time of the explosion. The operator was using the loader’s bucket to spread piles of soil. As the loader was driving on the dirt road, a gas line ruptured and a fire was ignited near range six. The flames from the fire extended approximately 100 feet into the sky. The cause is unknown at this time.
Six people are still hospitalized, including five county jail inmates who were working at the site at the time of the blast. Three of the inmates and the driver of the front-loader are reported to be in critical but stable condition.