Oregon slow to protect against seismic fire hazards

Fire is one of the biggest threats to life and property after an earthquake. Oregon isn't doing much to prevent the damage.


The 7.1 magnitude earthquake that hit Mexico last week called attention once again to the terrifying Cascadia earthquake forecast to hit the Pacific Northwest.

Geologists say the region is overdue for a catastrophic seismic event that would kill hundreds and perhaps thousands of Oregonians and cost billions in economic damage.

Poorly constructed buildings are one of the biggest threats to human life and property during an earthquake. Fire caused by gas explosions from damaged pipes is another.

RELATED STORY: CASCADIA QUAKE: APOCALYPSE OR DECADES OF TERROR?

Businesses and households can protect against seismic-related fire hazards by installing a simple device, an automatic earthquake gas shut-off valve.

The valves shut off the flow of gas when they detect seismic activity of a certain magnitude. The idea is to prevent gas explosions or pipeline ruptures due to a gas leak caused by an earthquake.

According to the California Seismic Safety Commission, about one in four fires after an earthquake is related to natural gas leaks.

Fires from the 1994 Northridge quake near L.A. caused most of the damage in that quake.

In 1998, the city of Los Angeles was the first in the nation to require the installation of earthquake gas shut-off valves on any house being sold.

The city of Alameda has also made installations mandatory. San Francisco has crafted a draft proposal for installation in select buildings.

Unknown 2How to turn a gas meter on and off. Courtesy, NW Natural.

Oregon has moved forward with plans to retrofit some schools and comunity buildings.  But the state has no plans to require automatic shut off valves in homes or businesses, said Jay Raskin, chair of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission (OSSPAC)

The city of Portland is working on a policy requiring mandatory retrofitting in select buildings, said Dan Douthit, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM).

“We very much are tracking this issue,” he said.

“Whenever an earthquake happens somewhere else, we learn from what worked and didn’t work. So as more information becomes available about how these valves have become effective or ineffective, that could influence future policy considerations.”

In lieu of mandates, Raskin said businesses and residents should consider installing the safety devices as part of their earthquake preparedness toolkits.

“Shut-off valves are something [businesses] really should look into in terms of risks,” he said.

“Understanding the nature of their building and the nature of the soil around them — there’s going to be a lot of movement.”

Earthquake shut-off valves are installed on a building’s gas house line  — the pipe between the building and gas meter — and placed on the customer’s side of the meter. If a customer wants to install an earthquake shut-off valve or to reset the valve and revive the natural gas appliances, they need to call a contractor.

Gas shut off valves

“Because the earthquake shut-off valve would be installed on the customer-owned line, NW Natural can’t maintain, service or reset them, if they shut off inadvertently or due to an earthquake,” said Daphne Mathew, NW Natural public information officer.

Residential earthquake shut-off valves in Portland cost around $575, said Jeff Swart, owner of the Portland retrofit company Earthquake Tech.

Outside Portland, prices range from $675 to $700. Swart said installation prices for commercial structures depend on many factors, such as the location and time it takes to retrofit the building.

There’s nothing like an earthquake to get people thinking about seismic safety.  Swart said he's seen an uptick in customer calls over  the past week — since the Mexico quake.

Mathew and Douthit did express one concern about installing the shut off valves: If the system is triggered accidentally, it could take a long time to get the system back up and running.

Rachel Ramirez is an Oregon Business intern.

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