Hutchinson — The downtown site where natural gas exploded, causing a fire that destroyed two businesses in this central Kansas town, should soon be marked by a 40-foot smokestack.
Kansas Gas Service and Cudd Pressure Control of Elk City, Okla., plan to build the stack over a fire that still burns where Decor Wedding and Party Supplies once stood.
Officials said they'd like to keep the fire lit to burn all the gas that's coming out of the ground. But the fire creates a safety hazard while burning close to the ground, so the smokestack is needed to move the fire higher up.
The stack, which will be held in place by cables or wires, also will lessen the chance of the fire getting snuffed out by wind, said Bruce Harris, community relations manager for KGS.
Harris said crews expected the stack to be erected by Sunday evening, despite a storm that was forecast for the area.
In the meantime, Harris said, if the fire goes out, it will be reignited to prevent gas from escaping.
Hutchinson is recovering from an explosion Jan. 17 that destroyed the two businesses. Gas geysers erupted around town hours later, setting off a second explosion the next day at a mobile home park that killed one man and critically injured his wife.
Officials assume a Kansas Gas Service pipeline connected to an underground salt cavern ruptured about 500 feet underground, leaking natural gas into the ground beneath Hutchinson. The gas has purportedly surfaced through abandoned and capped salt brine wells.
Harris said KGS efforts to drill new wells at various spots around Hutchinson to vent the gas in other controlled areas were still not successful as of Saturday afternoon.
Many in downtown Hutchinson have become accustomed to the continuous flame.
Sandy Jackson Siegfried, owner of Allie's Deli, a few doors east of one of the burned-out businesses, said she's doing her best to put the fire out of her mind.
"It's sort of become part of the decor of downtown," Siegfried said. "We hardly even look at it anymore. It's just kind of there."
A large part of southeast Hutchinson remains evacuated and under National Guard watch, including the Big Chief Mobile Home Park, where a trailer home exploded above a fissure where natural gas was seeping from the ground on Jan. 18.