McMINNVILLE, Tenn. — An ignited underground natural gas deposit continued shooting flames into the air here Tuesday with such force that firefighters abandoned efforts to cap the 280-foot hole.
Instead, they used pipes to shunt the flowing gas away from a neighborhood and built a makeshift chimney to funnel the 20-foot flame.
“We have to back up and punt,” McMinnville Fire Chief Kevin Lawrence said.
There aren’t expected to be any health risks from the gas fire, he said.
The fire ignited about noon Monday when workers were drilling a well behind a new home in this city of 13,000, located about 75 miles northwest of Chattanooga.
Sandy Freeman, an employee of Samuel Mills & Son Well Drilling in Pikeville, Tenn., was drilling the hole when the natural gas deposit ignited.
Mr. Freeman said he and other workers began experiencing telltale signs of gas exposure, including one person who said the fillings in his teeth began tingling.
But it was too late to remove the drill bit before a fireball burped out of the well.
“I got a headache instantly and then a got a big boom,” said Mr. Freeman, 44, who sustained first- and second-degree burns on his left hand and both arms. “It sort of pushed me off the rig and I rolled down in the mud to put the fire on me out.”
Diggers were installing a well for a geothermal heating unit, a system touted for its energy efficiency.
Jimmy Priestley, of Bob’s Central Air, said geothermal systems are located throughout the McMinnville area, including 150 wells used to heat and cool the town’s civic center.
“It’s very rare for one of the wells to light up,” Mr. Priestley said.
Firefighters set up a water curtain to block the flames’ heat from the new brick home being constructed nearby. Windows in the home were cracked during the explosion.
The Wild Well Control company of Houston was called to help extinguish the blaze. The company states on its Web site, www.wildwell.com, that its firefighters battle about 50 well fires a year.
Well-fire expert Ozzie Hansen helped local firefighters spray down the blaze Tuesday. Then they filled the well with water and begin trying to remove the drill bit.
But Chief Lawrence said there was too much pressure from the gas deposit to cap the well. He said firefighters will let it burn out naturally, but he is unsure how long it will take.
Jeff Golden, a retired banker who owns the property, watched throughout the day as firefighters battled the pesky gas fire. His son and daughter are building the new houses on his lot, and he said he will test to see if the underground gas collection can be sold for heating.
“At this point, we just have to wait until it can be capped off and we can get some advice,” Mr. Golden said. “It could turn out to be real surprising benefit out of all this.”