Van catches fire at propane filling station

The Enterprise — Michael Koff

Charred wreckage is all that’s left of a van that had been converted into a camper by a family from Quebec. In the foreground is a car, belonging to an employee of Robinson’s Ace Hardware, that suffered extensive damage in the fire.

GUILDERLAND — A family from Quebec, including three children, lost all of its possessions when its van caught fire Tuesday morning in the parking lot of Robinson’s Ace Hardware on Route 20.

Because of the proximity of a large propane filling station, immediately after Guilderland Police arrived, they began evacuating the homes directly behind the store, said Westmere Fire Department’s First Captain Charlie Cahill. “They did a great job,” he said.

In addition to Westmere, two other fire departments also responded, and eastbound traffic on Western Avenue was stopped while firefighters worked. There were no injuries.

The van — which had been converted into a recreational vehicle — was completely destroyed, said Cahill, who was in command of the fire scene  at 1874 Western Ave.

The van’s owner had just finished filling a propane tank behind the hardware store and then felt heat coming from behind and turned around to see that the van was on fire, Cahill said. The first 911 call, at 10:22 a.m., came from the van’s owner, phoning from the hardware store.

The van, which was outfitted as a camper, had a self-contained propane storage tank on the outside of the vehicle, underneath the driver’s side, about midway back, said Cahill; the propane was used to power a stove and refrigerator in the camper.

Westmere’s first piece of apparatus was on the scene within about five minutes, Cahill said.

When firefighters arrived, “The gas tank in the RV was compromised, so they had to deal with gasoline that was on fire, running back down the parking lot at them.”

Firefighters used a handline to spray the propane tank and keep it cool.

The Guilderland Fire Department arrived and was able to establish a water supply; once that was done, Cahill said, firefighters were able to put out the fire within two to three minutes. The McKownville Fire Department also assisted, he said.

The entire driver’s side of the car parked alongside the van, and both tires on that side of the car, were destroyed, Cahill said.

The car belonged to an employee of the hardware store who was out of town at a trade show, Cahill said.

The eastbound lanes of Western Avenue were closed down for a time, said Westmere Fire Department Chief Henry Smith.

About the owners of the van, Cahill said, “All their belongings were in the van; they lost all of their belongings.” He said that the Red Cross had been notified and was assisting the family.

There are two adults and three children — one of them age 3, and two of them age 8 — in the family, according to Red Cross Communications Director Kimmy Venter. They were given financial assistance that should be enough to cover “a couple of nights’ lodging,” Venter said; the assistance is given in the form of a prepaid debit card, and so the family has leeway as to how it wants to use it. Health-service professionals are also working with the family to replace any prescription medicines they may have lost in the fire, Venter said.

It’s “very rare” to have a fire at a propane filling station, Cahill said. “I don’t remember ever having one in this area.”

The propane filling station itself never caught fire, Cahill said, and the cause of this fire is still unknown. The town’s fire investigation team is charged with looking into it, he said. 

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