OPEN RECORDS: Aurora firefighters responded to reported gas leaks at Heather Gardens 4 times in weeks before fatal November explosion

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AURORA | Firefighters from Aurora Fire Rescue responded to the Heather Gardens senior living community at least four times in the weeks before a fatal gas explosion torched homes and killed an 82-year-old woman Nov. 16, city records show.

Officials responded to reports of a natural gas leak at separate homes in Heather Gardens on Oct. 23, Oct. 29, Nov. 13 and Nov. 14, according to information obtained through an open records request. A spokesman for Xcel Energy confirmed the gas provider also had documented incidents at Heather Gardens on those dates.

Fire officials did not respond to any reported gas leaks at Heather Gardens in the six months prior to the first report on Oct. 23, records show.

Firefighters also responded to the complex to address a potential gas leak on Nov. 18 — two days after the fatal explosion. A spokesman for Xcel Energy said the reports after the fire were caused by a jump in the outside temperature, causing gas that had leeched into the soil to suddenly evaporate. The company used vacuums to rid the area of small, residual pockets of gas that Sunday.

There could be additional reports of natural gas leaks at Heather Gardens not mentioned in the list officials provided, as part of the Sentinel’s open records request was denied, according to a letter from Lisa Horton, a records supervisor for the city. Horton wrote some records were not released because “it would be contrary to the public interest to release all criminal investigative records prior to the conclusion of the ongoing investigation.”

Spokespeople from Aurora Fire had previously said firefighters were on-scene at Heather Gardens to respond to a reported gas leak prior to the explosion Nov. 16. There was no mention of a Nov. 16 report in the response to the records request. 

The fire at Heather gardens killed 82-year-old resident Carol Ross and sent another resident and one firefighter to the hospital, officials confirmed. The firefighter was released shortly after being admitted.

Multiple homes on East Linvale Place were decimated by the blaze.

Officials say a third-party contractor using boring equipment punctured an underground gas line at Heather Gardens, causing a leak.

Contractors working on behalf of Comcast Colorado were in the midst of laying new fiber optic cable at the retirement community in the weeks before the explosion, a spokesperson for Comcast Colorado said.

The Colorado Public Utilities Commission had asked Heather Gardens to impose a voluntary digging moratorium after the explosion.

It’s unclear whether city or state officials will review other excavation conducted by the contractor in the area.

Contractors for Comcast ceased work after the fire, a spokesperson confirmed.

There have been at least two additional confirmed natural gas leaks in Aurora that prompted evacuations and “reverse 911 calls” since the mid-November explosion. 

Residents in the Murphy Creek neighborhood were told to shelter in place Nov. 20 after a construction crew hit a gas line, reportedly owned by Colorado Interstate Gas, near the area. The leak was contained and the orders to seek shelter were lifted within a few hours. 

A spokesperson representing Colorado Interstate Gas did not respond to a request for comment shortly after the leak last month.

More than a dozen homes near Horseshoe Park were evacuated Dec. 2 after residents reported smelling gas. Gas service to three homes was shut off for several hours, according to Mark Stutz, a spokesman for Xcel Energy. Stutz said early indications have led investigators to believe the leak may have been caused by an errant tree root that somehow disturbed the gas line. Lines are required to be buried at least 3 feet underground.

Officials from Xcel and Aurora Fire Rescue acknowledged both organizations typically see a bump in reported or suspected gas leaks near the end of autumn as temperatures plummet. 

“It is not unusual this time of year to see an increase in incidents of gas odors or gas leaks,” Stutz said. “There are a lot of changes in the environment when you go from summer to a wintertime scenario, and with increased gas use you will see an increase in the number of odor calls or leak calls — it just happens this time of year.”

He encouraged people who think they smell mercaptan — the odorant used in natural gas to make leaks easily identifiable — to immediately leave their homes and call either 911 or Xcel. 

Sherri-Jo Stowell, a spokeswoman for Aurora Fire Rescue, said investigators from the department continue to analyze the scene of the Heather Gardens explosion. She said there is no timeline as to when the department will release the scene to investigators from Xcel, insurance companies, and other agencies.