The Coronavirus Pandemic and Fuel Geysering

By Alex Viktora

COVID-19 may be having an impact on the likelihood you’ll experience a fuel geyser. Relax. There’s no need to get your saw, leaf blower or fuel container a nasal swab. They’re not sick and the virus doesn’t prey on any of these items, all of which are susceptible to fuel geysering.

Before we get into the connection between the virus and fuel geysering, let’s go back to April of 2020, when, here at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC), we received several reports of fuel geysers during saw operations in Southwest Colorado. The environmental conditions were relatively cool. The series of geysers is captured in a great RLS from the Grizzly Peak Module. All the lessons in this RLS are excellent, and two stand out:

  1. COVID_image from 2014 RLS

    Image from the 2014 “Chainsaw Vapor Lock RLS”.

    Stay vigilant for geysers and other hazards. The wildland fire environment is full of hazards, and with COVID-19 on folks’ minds, it’s especially important to remain vigilant to the “normal” hazards, including fuel geysering. This balance is a challenge, no doubt. Go slow, get good briefings, communicate regularly.

  2. Anticipate a geyser, and work to mitigate it. If your saw or leaf blower dies unexpectedly, runs rough, or won’t start, anticipate a fuel geyser when you open the tank. Move away from ignition sources (50 feet at least!). Cover the tank with a gloved hand or rag and open. [Note: turning the tank away from you as you open it up can actually make the spray worse as the spray comes out sideways from the cap.]
COVID_image of page 1 Grizzly Peak RLS

Page 1 of the Grizzly Peak Module fuel geyser RLS.

Less Gas Sold During Pandemic

I don’t know about you, but once the stay-at-home order hit Arizona and I started working from home, I basically quit driving. Millions of drivers did the same, it turns out, and the number of miles driven—and gallons of gas purchased and used—dropped dramatically in March and April.

As fuel supplies make the seasonal shift from winter to summer fuel blends (normally done April-June), there may be some gas stations that are making this switch more slowly due to the simple fact that they may not have room in their tanks. This concern has been expressed by some of the folks who bring gas to the pumps.

Winter Blends – More Susceptible to Geysering

Here’s the bummer about all this: winter fuel blends are more susceptible to geysering, especially as temps warm. Geysers can happen year-round with any octane fuel, that’s true. But we can also say that winter blends—which are formulated for colder temps and are more volatile—when used in summer conditions, might present the ideal recipe for geysering. Gnarly, yeah? As summer blends start to show up, the risk for geysering will likely decrease, but will never disappear.

Over the last several weeks, we’ve been in touch with the U.S. Forest Service folks who’ve been working on fuel geysering for years. Pete Duncan, the Forest Service’s National Saw Program Manager, sums it all up for us with two basic bullets:

  • COVID_image of exclamation pointBe Aware: There may be an increase in the likelihood of fuel geysering due to a delay in the transition from winter to summer blends at the pump. Winter blends are more volatile because they are formulated to work in colder weather. The transition to a less volatile summer blend occurs in spring for most areas; however, fuel supplies may be transitioning later than normal due to reduced travel.
  • Be Aware: Gasoline being used during the warming months—May, June, July—may be more susceptible to geysering than in previous years.

Anticipate a Geyser!

Finally, regardless of the type of fuel you’re working with, please remember what many consider to be the most essential fuel geyser lesson available: If you’re working with saws, blowers or even fuel containers, you should anticipate a geyser. If your saw quits unexpectedly, you might be moments away from experiencing a geyser. If you experience a geyser, it might well be a life-altering event, like many of the geysers we’ve seen over the years:

Willow Peak Fire Burn Injury (2015)

Pioneer Fire Burn Injury (2016)

Pingree Hill Prescribed Fire Burn Injury (2016)

2020 has been life-altering enough. If you anticipate a fuel geyser, you might avoid adding another event to an already eventful year.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.