A flash fire yesterday at a Dupont Circle area gas station was caused when gasoline fumes were ignited by static electricity, D.C. fire officials said.
No one was injured by the fire, and the damage was negligible. But authorities said such a fire, though unusual, can be triggered by motorists' behavior at the gas pump and can have serious consequences. They said yesterday's fire was the first of its kind in recent memory in Washington.
Motorists who go back into their vehicles after beginning to pump gas can generate a static discharge when they get out and remove the nozzle at the end of refueling, authorities said. The static electricity can cause a spark and a fire.
In yesterday's incident, D.C. fire and rescue units rushed to an Exxon station at 2150 M St. NW about noon after receiving a report of the flash fire, said fire department spokeswoman Lisa Bass.
The fire had burned itself out. Investigators shut down the pumps at the station and cited the owner for failure to maintain a working fire extinguisher, Bass said. The gas station will remain closed until the owner can verify that all pumps are properly grounded and meet D.C. fire codes for gas stations, she said.
D.C. Fire Marshal Kenneth Ellerbe said he intends to ask other fire marshals from across the nation to form a task force to investigate the hazards at gas stations.
Fall and winter bring cool, dry air that is conducive to static electricity buildup, according to fire specialists.
The National Fire Protection Association estimated that the number of vehicle fires at gas stations has more than doubled since 1980 -- attributable in part to the increased number of vehicles on the road. In recent years, the association has received isolated reports of flash fires, apparently caused by static electricity, that ignited while motorists were pumping gas.
The American Petroleum Institute and the Petroleum Equipment Institute encourage motorists to remain outside while refueling. A motorist who does get in and out of a vehicle during refueling should discharge static away from the gas pump before handling the nozzle.
Static may be discharged safely by touching a metal part of the vehicle, such as a door, or some other metal surface with a bare hand, the industry groups said.