RICHMOND, Calif. (MCT) — A massive fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond sent thick black smoke wafting across the San Francisco Bay Area sky Monday evening, and more than 160,000 people were warned to stay inside.
Shortly after the fire broke out at 6:15 p.m., flames and two large plumes of black smoke rose five or six miles into the sky, drifting across the bay. Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said no explosions were reported on-site, however witnesses reported hearing at least four loud blasts.
Witnesses described a smell of burning plastic, with residents as far as Oakland and Benicia reporting the foul odor.
All refinery employees have been accounted for, Chevron said, and no major injuries were reported.
The cause of the fire was not immediately known, but Avram said in a statement the fire started in the facility’s “4 Crude Unit,” a processing unit where gasoline is produced.
“We will not speculate on the cause of this incident. Our priority right now is containing the fire and protecting the health and safety of our employees and community,” Avram said late Monday.
Firefighters from the refinery fire department and Richmond sprayed water on the fire outside to control flames and the thick dark smoke so crews could fully control the blaze inside. Crews remained at the scene late into the night.
“I heard a big boom … then the alarms started going off,” said resident Daniela Rodriguez, 23. “I was getting kind of scared. I went into my backyard and could see a big, dark gray cloud. I saw it was coming from where the refinery is, so I told my mom to lock the windows.” Rodriguez said about an hour passed before the call came to shelter in place. “I was feeling kind of nauseous and light headed (from the smell),” she added.
A shelter in place warning was issued via sirens and phone calls, and BART closed the Richmond and El Cerrito Del Norte stations.
Residents of Richmond, San Pablo, North Richmond, El Cerrito and North Oakland were warned to stay inside, close their windows and doors and turn off air conditioning and heating units. A light wind carried the smoke eastward, and it was visible in Walnut Creek and Concord and as far east as Antioch.
“We do have air quality inspectors on scene and we will be taking air samples and will have the results back (Tuesday),” Bay Area Air Quality Management District spokeswoman Lisa Fasano said.
Flames were visible from the Bay Bridge and from Jack London Square in Oakland.
Some people were fearful while others took the fire in stride.
“We heard the sirens go off and I said, ‘Thunderdome blew,’ ” said Emmett Zediker, 39, an electrician who lives in the North and East neighborhood in Richmond and has been through other refinery fires. “We call Chevron ‘Thunderdome’ because when it blows, it blows. So we cracked open a bottle of vintage wine and we are having an apocalypse party.”
His three friends stayed inside, but Zediker said he was hot and went outside for air. “My friends said, ‘Don’t open the door, don’t breathe,’ but I’m like, ‘Let’s have some more wine.’ ”
The last time there was an explosion and fire at the refinery was in 2007. There are 1,200 employees at the refinery and all have received training for fires and disasters.
California’s tight energy market could suffer a spike in gasoline prices in the coming days and weeks due to Monday’s fire, analysts said.
“If the refinery is affected for an extended period of time, there would be an effect on gasoline prices on the West Coast,” said Pavel Molchanov, an analyst with investment firm Raymond James. “The effect on California fuel prices is likely to be meaningful.” The key is the nature of the damage and whether the fire disrupts refinery operations at the Richmond refinery.
The Chevron plant can process 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day and is the Bay Area’s largest refinery.
“There are not that many refineries in the state, so California is very reliant on the Richmond refinery,” said Christopher Thornberg, principal economist and founding partner with Beacon Economics. “So you could definitely see an effect on gasoline prices.”
California’s strict environmental and air quality rules also mean that California vehicles can burn only a specialized cocktail of fuels.
“The specialized fuel creates tight gasoline supplies in California,” Thornberg said. “There is less supply so that tends to drive up prices in California anyway.”
Gasoline prices can be affected even when refineries have unscheduled maintenance hiccups or come back on line sooner than anticipated.
Still, refinery fires come with the territory.
“Fires at refineries are quite common,” Molchanov said. “Refinery fires are certainly not unheard of, considering the sheer amount of high-temperature processes that go on there.”
(Staff writers George Avalos and Dana Hull contributed to this report.)