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Residents near Tehachapi Loop urged to stay inside as derailed train continues to burn

February 21, 2010 |  5:12 pm

Train fire

Firefighters on Sunday battled a stubborn tunnel fire that broke out when part of a freight train derailed near Bakersfield.

There were no injuries in the accident, which happened about 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the entrance to a tunnel on the Tehachapi Loop south of Keene, the Kern County Fire Department said in a statement.

But about seven homes were evacuated when a tanker car carrying denatured alcohol burst into flames, producing a toxic cloud, said Engineer Justin Corley, a Fire Department spokesman. A temporary shelter was set up at Tehachapi High School.

The alcohol fire was confined to the tunnel, and firefighters allowed it to burn out, Corley said. But during the night, the fire spread to at least two other cars, one containing plastic pellets and another containing corn meal, he said.

A large column of black smoke could be seen over the site Sunday. Residents living within two miles were urged to stay inside, with their doors and windows closed.

Fire crews were able to suppress the flames enough to attach cables to the burning cars and pull them out of the tunnel, Corley said. They then used a large backhoe to rip open the cars and extinguish the blaze with foam and water, he said.

But there were still flames inside the tunnel. It wasn’t immediately clear how many other cars might have caught fire.

“We can’t get inside the tunnel to take a look because of the heat,” Corley said.

Firefighters hoped to have the blaze contained by midnight Sunday, he said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the train to derail. The train was traveling from Barstow to Stockton on Union Pacific tracks when the accident happened, said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for BNSF Railway, which owns the train. Fire crews believed just two cars came off the tracks.

They were being assisted by the Kern County Environmental Health Agency, the Kern County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and railroad crews.

-- Alexandra Zavis

Photo: A freight train burns after derailing Saturday near Keene, Calif., about 15 miles east of Bakersfield. Credit: Kern County Fire Department