Propane-fueled bus fire in East Ridge remains under investigation

Propane-fueled bus fire in East Ridge remains under investigation

August 20th, 2013 by Jeff LaFave in Local Regional News

Fire erupts from a Bluebird, 71-passenger, propane-powered school bus at the U-Haul store at 5618 Ringgold Road in East Ridge on Sunday. The front end of the brand-new bus was destroyed.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Although the smoke has since cleared, the search is on to determine what caused a school bus fire in East Ridge on Sunday evening.

A "brand new" propane-powered Blue Bird school bus went up in flames about 5 p.m. at the U-Haul on Ringgold Road. The 71-passenger bus, owned by Quality Drive Away in Goshen, Ind., was stopped en route to a repair facility in Georgia when the vehicle's front end ignited.

Two blasts heard within five minutes of each other are believed to be caused by the front tires exploding.

The East Ridge Police Department was not available for comment, and Quality Drive Away declined comment. U-Haul manager Daniel Butterfield said the vehicle was gone when he arrived Monday morning.

The fire occurred merely feet from a pressurized propane tank on site.

"It didn't even faze it," Butterfield said. "It's got plastic stickers on it for advertisement, plus it's got paint on it, and it wasn't even bubbling after the fire."

Nobody was injured in the blaze.

Propane was approved as an alternative clean fuel in the Environmental Protection Agency's 1990 Clean Air Act revisions, as well as the National Energy Policy Act of 1992. Propane-fueled vehicles are considered the leading alternative fuel-powered transportation source, with 270,000 vehicles on the road in the United States.

According to Blue Bird's website, propane-fueled "autogas" buses are popular for their combination of fuel economy, horsepower and affordability.

The major buzzword with propane autogas, however, is "safety." The chemical nature of propane, which remains stable at -44 Fahrenheit, requires a temperature of 920 degrees to ignite, according to the Propane Education & Research Council. The same news release also boasts propane autogas tanks as "20 times" more puncture-resistant than gasoline tanks, and able to withstand four times the pressure.

Blue Bird Corp. representatives visited Chattanooga on July 12 as part of a national campaign touting propane-powered bus reliability, stopping for a photo opportunity at Lookout Mountain.

Messages left at the Blue Bird Corp. headquarters were not returned by press time.

Ben Coulter, supervisor of the Hamilton County Department of Education transportation services, said Hamilton County schools primarily use buses besides Blue Bird. The program uses 231 contracted buses, 182 of which are contracted through Durham School Services. Durham does not use Blue Bird, he said.

Contact staff writer Jeff LaFave at 423-757-6592 or jlafave@timesfreepress.com.