By Barney Lerten, Blake Mayfield

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) – A California man had just refueled his twin-engine plane at Bend Municipal Airport and was taxiing away to fly home Thursday afternoon when a wing tip clipped the metal support for the awning over the fuel pumps, sparking an intense fire that destroyed the plane, heavily damaged the pumps and prompted area road closures and evacuations.

But the pilot and passenger got out of the 1978 Cessna 340 A and escaped injury, and the safety elements of the fuel pumps kept a far worse situation – an explosion – from happening, officials said.

 The first Bend Fire & Rescue crews to arrive found the aircraft fueling station fully ablaze and flames spreading to the plane parked beside it, Fire Marshal Dan Derlacki said.

With the closest buildings 50 feet away from the tanks, crews were able to quickly put a lot of water on the fire and stop its spread to any other structures or aircraft, Derlacki said.

Initial concerns of the fuel tanks exploding prompted the evacuation of areas up to 1 ½ miles away and closure of Powell Butte Highway for a short time, until the fire was out. The airport’s air traffic was shut down until 5 p.m. to ensure the safety of those on the ground and those landing.

By the time the fierce fire was out, the plane was heavily damaged, but no injuries were reported. The black smoke plume was visible for several miles in all directions.

Derlacki said investigators determined that the plane clipped the corner metal support for the awning as it taxied away. The wing immediately ignited, and the burning fuel from the aircraft spread to the pumps. 

The initial alarm came in around 1:40 p.m. Deschutes County sheriff’s deputies closed the Powell Butte Highway and evacuated the area within a 1 to 1.5-mile radius, to avoid inhaling any fumes or smoke.

“Area residents were notified via the Emergency Preparedness Network, due to the unknown caustic fumes and volatility of the (fuel) that was currently burning at a high rate,” Sergeant Jason Wall said.

“Evacuation notices were lifted relatively quickly as the fire was mitigated, and the smoke plume dissipated,” he added.

Redmond Fire & Rescue responded with one of their aircraft rescue firefighting engines (ARFF) from the Redmond Airport. The specialty fire truck is equipped with AFFF foam designed for aircraft and flammable fuel fires. The foam was used to complete extinguishing of the plane fire and prevent the vapors from the reminding fuel from reigniting.

The fire was reported extinguished by 3 p.m.

“With the protected design of these tanks and fueling station, the tanks were equipped with over pressure relief valves on top and shut-off valves in the system,” Derlacki said in a later news release. “The vents allowed the vapors from the fuel inside to escape and not allow it to build up pressure inside. This pressure would’ve led to the tanks exploding.

“The shut off valves kept the remaining fuel inside tanks and not spilling out,” he said. “Two above-ground tanks supply the fuel pumps; one had 6,000 gallons of aviation fuel in it, the other 3,000 gallons of jet fuel. Approximately 180 gallons of fuel was in the aircraft and was still leaking after the fire. Maintenance crews from Leading Edge Aviation worked to secure that leak. All water runoff was contained on site and did not appear to pose any further threat.

“Estimated value of the aircraft is $300,000 and is a complete loss. The fuel tanks and pump station are valued at $500,000. The loss on the pump system is estimated at $250,000,” Derlacki added.

Earlier, Wall had urged people to “please avoid the area. If you are currently in the area, please evacuate in a calm and orderly manner.”

“We are recommending the community avoid the inhalation of fumes/smoke by evacuating at least 1 to 1.5 miles from the area,” Wall added in the initial, brief news release. “At this time, Powell Butte Highway is closed to the public until the area is rendered safe.”