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Ohio Gas Explosion, Fires Caused From Built-Up Pressure

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FAIRPORT HARBOR, Ohio — Built-up pressure in natural gas lines led to a house explosion, a series of fires and a brief evacuation order on a frigid morning Monday for an Ohio village of about 3,000 people, none of whom appeared to be injured.

At least 15 fires were reported in homes, apartments and other buildings in Fairport Harbor, a lakefront village on Lake Erie about 30 miles northeast of Cleveland. All had been extinguished by mid-afternoon, said Tom Talcott, deputy chief of the fire department in nearby Mentor.

The fires rendered several structures uninhabitable, Talcott said. Officials were still checking homes in late afternoon to make sure no gas built up in unoccupied ones during the day.

Temperatures were well below freezing at the time of the explosion, and residents who evacuated went to a community center. Jeff Zidonis, spokesman for gas company Dominion East Ohio, couldn't say whether the cold was a factor in the pressure problems that led to the explosion.

"It could be," he said. "Obviously we've had one of the coldest nights that we've had in two years. But that's speculation at this time."

An evacuation had been ordered because the fire department was overwhelmed by calls reporting gas odors and could not respond to all of them. Once reinforcements arrived, residents were told to instead turn off gas lines and stay inside when the situation stabilized.

Residents who evacuated to the community center began returning home by late morning.

Law enforcement officials and more than a dozen fire trucks had converged on the center, where concerned residents with leashed dogs in tow were waiting for the all-clear to go home.

"Hopefully we'll get everybody up and go home and make sure our house is OK, and make sure there's no water exploding out of pipes from being frozen," said Dorothy Tye, 45, who left at 7:30 a.m. after discovering that the furnace wasn't working. "That's what we're hoping for."

Tye, who evacuated with her husband and elderly mother, had also brought along the family's pet bunny rabbit, Snickers.

Authorities have not said how many residents left the area. Talcott stressed that residents should not venture outdoors while gas crews continued to spread out across the town.

"We have several roads blocked with fire hose, very icy conditions from the water runoff, and we're better off if people stay put," he said.

Dominion East Ohio said that the gas line system was back to normal pressure and that the problems appeared to have been isolated to one part of town.

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Associated Press reporters Thomas J. Sheeran and Kantele Franko contributed to this report.

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