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Sheriff disputes utility account of what caused gas explosion
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FRESNO (AP) — A California sheriff on Monday disputed an account by the state’s largest utility that suggests a county worker using heavy equipment ruptured a gas pipeline and triggered an explosion last week that injured 11 people.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said the county equipment operator was smoothing dirt, not digging, near the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas line that ruptured at a gun range on Friday, The Fresno Bee reported.

Over the weekend, officials with Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Fresno County public works said the county heavy equipment operator apparently nicked the line while working on a berm that was designed to stop bullets at the shooting range operated by the Fresno County Sheriff’s Foundation.

Mims, however, said the operator was using the front loader’s bucket to spread piles of soil along the berm that captures bullets from the shooting range. She added that the loader is not a “digging piece of equipment” and was merely driving on the road near the berm when the gas line ruptured.

“We have no one saying anything was dug up or struck or nicked,” Mims said. “That will be determined at the end of the investigation.”

The blast is now being investigated by a host of agencies, including the sheriff’s office, the California Public Utilities Commission, PG&E and the Fresno Fire Department.

PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said the company has hired a firm to investigate the gas line explosion that injured members of an inmate work crew, two sheriff’s deputies and a county equipment operator.

Boyles confirmed that there was no call made to the national 8-1-1 utility call center to check if any gas lines were present before digging started.

As of Monday, six people remained hospitalized at Community Regional Medical Center — four of them in critical condition. The operator, identified by family as Ismael Areazola, is among those in critical condition with burns, as are three Fresno County Jail inmates. Two other inmates are in stable condition, said Fresno County sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti.