By Bay City News Service
Residents of western Contra Costa County are recovering today from a dramatic night in which thousands of households sheltered in place as a fire burned out of control at Chevron's Richmond refinery.
Hundreds of people were treated at local hospitals for medical issues related to the fire, including respiratory problems.
As residents of Richmond, North Richmond and San Pablo hunkered down inside their homes under a warning from Contra Costa Health Services, a cloud of black smoke crept across the sky, making its way east toward the Oakland hills.
The main fire was controlled late Monday, and the shelter-in-place warning was lifted shortly after 11 p.m.
This morning, a smaller fire continued to burn at the refinery, located near the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, but Chevron was calling it a controlled blaze meant to release pressure.
"The fire that was of concern has been extinguished," Chevron spokesman Sam Singer said. "What they're allowing it to do now is essentially kind of flare."
The fire started sometime around 6:30 p.m. in Chevron's 4 Crude Unit, where Singer said diesel fuel was being refined.
Three Chevron employees were injured, but none seriously.
Employees are being told to come to work today, Chevron spokesman Lloyd Avram said. He said today's fire is burning "in a controlled manner to burn off any additional hydrocarbons."
Avram said Chevron is still looking into what caused the fire.
"We're doing a root cause analysis right now," he said this morning.
Chevron, which has apologized to the community for the fire, is holding a noon news conference to discuss the blaze, and is hosting a community meeting at 6 p.m. tonight at the Richmond Memorial Auditorium at 403 Civic Center Plaza.
Randy Sawyer, chief environmental and hazardous materials officer for Contra Costa Health Services, said about 18,800 calls went out over the agency's automated emergency phone alert system on Monday.
Sawyer said air samples taken in Richmond and Martinez are being analyzed this morning, but that there are no plans for shelter-in-place warnings today.
He said the air quality shouldn't affect any National Night Out block parties planned for tonight.
"The situation should be safe for people to go outside," he said.
Between Monday evening and this morning, Doctors Medical Center in San Pablo reported receiving 181 individuals complaining of respiratory problems, eye irritation and other issues.
Most were released after being seen, according to the hospital.
"Now that people are waking up, DMC is currently experiencing a second wave of individuals seeking services," hospital officials said. "We expect, and are prepared for, a high demand at the hospital throughout the day."
Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center reported assessing and treating more than 200 people for respiratory problems as of this morning.
Sawyer said he had been told 269 people were treated at Kaiser.
A resident of Chanslor Avenue in North Richmond who declined to give her name said she heard an explosion around the time the fire started and didn't know what to do.She then got the automated call from the Contra Costa Health Services instructing her to stay inside and close all doors and windows.
Ivan, a 17-year-old from San Pablo, said he was at soccer practice at when smoke began to make its way to the field where the team was doing drills.
The practice was canceled, and Ivan's family drove home to their house on Rheem Avenue and stayed indoors. Ivan said his whole family suffered headaches because of the smoke.
Irish Shepherd, 81, who has lived in Richmond since the 1930s, said this fire scared her more than anything she has experienced in the area.
"I have seen a lot of things, but nothing as bad as this," she said. Shepherd said she heard a couple of explosions from her home on 11th Street a little after 6 p.m. Monday, "one right after the other."
See more of Patch's Chevron fire coverage: