Lightning-caused fires and refrigerant leak at SUU keep fire crews busy

Fire crews evacuated SUU library Monday to take care of a refrigerant leak in Cedar City, Utah, June 13, 2016 | Photo courtesy of SUU, St. George/Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY – Fire crews were busy most of Monday putting out several lightning-caused fires and helping to evacuate the library on Southern Utah University’s campus on a report of a refrigerant leak.

An early morning thunder and lightning storm had fire crews running as early as 4:30 a.m., said Cedar City Fire Chief Mike Phillips.

“The calls just kept coming after that,” he said. “There were breaks in between but it was a full day for sure.”

Crews responded to five different lightning-caused fires throughout the day – all of them single tree lightning strikes. All of the fires were located on the west side of Iron County.

None of the fires caused any major damage nor did they burn for a long time before firefighters put them out, Phillips said.

At approximately 9:30 a.m. fire crews were called out to SUU on a report of a refrigerant leak that had developed in the air conditioning unit at the library, SUU Police Chief Rick Brown said.

A statement issued by SUU’s Executive Director for Facilities Management, Tiger Funk, at around 8 p.m. said the leak occurred due to a faulty pressure gauge. However, earlier in the day both Phillips and Brown said it resulted from a loose screw in the system fire crews had to tighten.

“We just used a wrench and screwed it back down,” Phillips said.

An undetermined amount of refrigerant gas escaped and was released into the basement mechanical room where the chiller is housed.

“It was a slow leak,” Brown said.

The leak triggered the automatic refrigerant release alarms.

According to the website Healthline, refrigerant contains chemicals called fluorinated hydrocarbons, often referred to as Freon, a tasteless and mostly odorless gas.

“The gas produced by the refrigerant displaces oxygen,” Brown said.

Refrigerant poisoning can happen when someone inhales these chemicals, the site states.

While limited exposure is generally only mildly harmful, paramedics did check out one worker on scene who had been in the basement near the leak. He was cleared and released back to work, Brown said.

Mechanical equipment eventually ventilated the refrigerant from the basement, clearing the chemicals from the room.

Precautionary measures were taken and safety steps followed to ensure the safety of everyone, Phillips said.

Fire crews helped to evacuate the library that held about 30 people at the time. To help make that happen one of the firefighters activated the fire alarm notifying everyone inside the building there was a danger, Phillips said.

Air handlers were also shut down and all power to the building cut off.

“There is a certain safety protocol we have to follow on situations like this and that includes shutting off power and gas, but in this case there was no gas so we just had to shut off all power to the building,” Phillips said.

Electrical power was restored to the building and occupants were allowed to reenter around 11:30 a.m.

“Everyone was on top of this issue, especially the fire crews,” Brown said. “We got it taken care of quickly.”

The chiller equipment remains out of service until the faulty issue can be resolved, the statement said.

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Twitter: @tracie_sullivan

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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