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A Roanoke Rapids man faces a misdemeanor charge of injuring fixtures and other property of gas companies after hot embers from a burn barrel were thrown into a hole near a natural gas line.

Both police Chief Shane Guyant and fire Chief Jason Patrick said potential disaster was averted in the natural gas line fire that forced the evacuation of residents in the 1400 block of Washington Street to Kirkwood Adams Civic Center around 1 this morning.

Earlier Tuesday evening the fire department had responded to the area after a call that Justin Roger Nowell, 39, had been burning items in a burn barrel. He was ordered to extinguish the fire and told he could not burn items inside the city limits. Firefighters left after the fire in the barrel was extinguished.

Firefighters returned to the scene early this morning after receiving a call that a natural gas line was on fire. A large hole was discovered in the backyard and Guyant said officers determined that Nowell was responsible for the hole and damage to the gas line.

Guyant said Nowell had taken a shovel, dug the hole, and exposed the gas line.  

According to the Piedmont Natural Gas officials, Nowell had dug the hole and threw hot embers from the burn barrel into the hole which was located near the natural gas line. 

The heat from the embers burned through the natural gas line and created two small holes “which dangerously started the leak and subsequent fire,” Guyant said.

The city’s public works department also assisted in closing streets and evacuating residents. Officials from Piedmont Natural Gas and Dominion Energy along with Roanoke Rapids Fire Department firefighters successfully stopped the gas flow from another area in a nearby alley.  The entire time from the discovery to the evacuation and to the return of residents to their homes was around two hours. 

Nowell received a $1,500 bond and a September 15 court date. Guyant said investigators found no evidence that the fire was intentionally set.

“This could have ended badly,” Patrick said. “The quick work of so many including Piedmont Natural Gas and Dominion Energy, along with our brave firefighters to turn off the flow of gas was the primary reason that this event ended without any injuries.”

Patrick said the police department and public works departments were extremely helpful in evacuating nearby residents. “Also, thanks to the police department for finding the person responsible so quickly and taking him into custody.”   

Guyant praised the fire department and others who helped to bring the situation to a safe end. “The fire department was absolutely incredible tonight. They, along with Piedmont Natural Gas and Dominion Energy, need to be thanked for quickly and bravely working to end this potentially dangerous ordeal.”

The police chief said, however, “I am very disappointed that this charge is only a misdemeanor. This individual disrupted many lives this evening, and their negligence could have caused a very serious situation to occur in our city.  Hopefully, with the seriousness of this offense along with the extensive criminal history this individual has he can get some attention from the court system.”

Guyant also recognized members of the police department — Lieutenant M. Hunsucker, Master Officer N. Powell, and officers J. Conrad and L. Balmer —  “for performing above and beyond the normal course of duty this evening. I cannot stress enough how proud I am of not only the fire department and police department but also of public works for pulling together as a team to end this event with no one getting hurt. Simply amazing work.”