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A Bad Week for Fires, but Good News Arrives for Victims of Severe Burns

The cold weather blanketing much of the United States in this first week of February is causing many incidents of fire as people try to keep warm. For instance, in suburban New York, five firefighters were hospitalized with smoke inhalation after battling a basement house fire. One of those firefighters was in critical but stable condition and undergoing hyperbaric chamber treatment before going into the intensive care unit.

A local fire marshal said the blaze was not suspicious; the fire broke out around lunchtime and took about an hour to get under control. The firefighters were injured while in the basement, where there was a sudden eruption of flames, said one police detective. A fire chief added that “the fire at one point flared up on them,” probably from a rush of oxygen that came into the basement from a door or an area of wall being opened to the outside. See a video of the fire here.

The lesson here: If you have a fire in your home, it is best to simply close the door to the room where the fire is burning and immediately go outside your home to call the fire department — do not try to put out the fire yourself! In fact, closing a door or window as you leave will actually help to starve the fire of the fuel it needs to burn — oxygen.

A second recent fire holds another lesson for all of us. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a warehouse of costumes that were to be worn during the upcoming Carnival holiday went up in flames. The most notable aspect of this fire, though, was how quickly the warehouse burned. The reason: Costume clothing is generally much more flammable than everyday clothing. Parents should keep this fact in mind, because just one moment of carelessness around the house–such as laying down a child’s costume near a source of heat, or holding a birthday candle too close to a child wearing a costume — can cause third-degree burns to someone wearing or holding a costume.

Happily, I end today’s blog with good news for burn victims. Dr. Jorg Gerlach of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh has developed a technique whereby a spray gun can “shoot” a patient’s own stem cells onto burn-damaged skin to treat and heal burns more quickly. So a second-degree burn — a burn that penetrates the entire outer layer of the skin into the inner skin layer — can disappear within days. The spray nozzle, using a patient’s own cells, helps to cover the wounded area just like a paint gun would cover a wall. “The most critical cells are present, and we are using those cells right away from the patient. We just need to take care that we are distributing the cells nicely over the wound.”

Normally, sheets of skin are grown over the course of a month, and patients sometimes die of infection during the wait. In contrast, the new approach takes just 90 minutes and burns can heal in as little as four days, Gerlach said. The skin gun was featured on the National Geographic Channel this week. See the video here Or read more about the process here.