Backyard gardening, learned the hard way

(Graphic courtesy of Florida Call 811 Campaign)

(Graphic courtesy of Florida Call 811 Campaign)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Question: How many people does it take to plant a backyard bougainvillea? Answer: Fifteen firefighters, two Emergency Medical Services technicians, four fire trucks, one ambulance, one gas company emergency response vehicle, and a gas company employee!

But only if you're like me and fail to plan accordingly by contacting the right people when digging in your own yard.

I learned this lesson the hard way. Last weekend, I embarked on what I thought was going to be a leisurely afternoon of gardening, planting a beautiful flowering bougainvillea bush in my backyard. Simple, right? Not so fast. Keep reading.

After preparing the soil accordingly, I needed to put a post in the ground that would hold the heavy bush in place. I took my pole digger - as I had done countless times before - and started to dig. At 22 inches I thrust the pole digger one last time into the ground, when to my shock I hear a very loud hissing sound.

Then I smelled the gas.

My response was quick. I called 911, killed the power to my house, and notified my neighbors to get out and away. The emergency responders arrived within minutes. Their departure, however, didn't happen until four hours later.

I've always read about stories like this - you know, 'some other guy' who has this kind of thing happen to him. Well, now I'm 'some other guy' and as embarrassed as I was by my actions (and for my neighbors who were evacuated out of their homes on a Sunday afternoon for three hours because of my backyard shenanigans), I want to pass on my experience to highlight the importance of taking precautionary steps when digging on your property.

The Fire Chief on scene pointed out to me that this kind of danger is real. He told me that many utility lines nowadays are buried and the possibility of electrocution or explosions is very real as well.

And the amount of 'firepower' that responded - the fire trucks, EMTs, etc. - illustrates the serious nature of a high pressure natural gas leak.

If I had only planned ahead and called 811 so the utility company could check my yard (for free, mind you), all of this could have been avoided. In the end, I stand the chance of being assessed up to a $2,500 fine for the incident. I'm hoping they'll go easy on me, but I take responsibility for my actions.

The dangers are there, and as you can see, the costs associated can be very expensive.

Bottom line: Call 811 before you dig. And don't be 'some other guy.'

EDITOR'S NOTE: April marks the fifth annual National Safe Digging Month, which is formally recognized by the U.S. Congress and has earned the support of Florida's governor. The 'Call 811' campaign is designated to encourage everyone to call 811 before digging. For more information on the program, log on to www.sunshine811.com.