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A Terrible Month for Fires and Third-Degree Burns due to Carelessness

Unfortunately, it seems that the month of February 2011 can be used by fire-prevention experts as a useful lesson in how human error and carelessness can bring devastating consequences, in the form of third-degree burns and smoke inhalation, from fires.

First, in New York City on February 24, candles used in a bedroom caused a fatal five-alarm fire after they tipped over and ignited bed sheets. The fire left an elderly woman dead and also injured 20 firefighters and three residents. The occupant of the apartment where the fire began had placed the candles on the floor around her bed. At some point, they tipped over, and a guest doused the flames with water.

But then the guest made a terrible mistake–he opened a window to clear the smoke from the room, which allowed fresh air to feed the fire again. The fire department said this actually created a “blowtorch effect” that whipped through the open window and pushed the fire all the way through the apartment. Then, as the occupants were fleeing through the apartment, they left the bedroom door and the front door open, which allowed the fire to spread all the way into the building’s hallway and quickly engulf the rest of the building.

“Time and time again we respond to tragedies that could have been so easily prevented,” Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano said. “This fire had so many of those elements. Hopefully others will learn from this tragedy.”

That same day in Houston, four toddlers died in a fire at a day-care center simply because a pot filled with oil had been left unattended on a stove. In fact, the day-care provider was not even in the house at the time the fire started. Such carelessness is so egregious that local police have arrested the women running the day-care center.

Earlier in the month, a man in Ontario, Canada was found in his bedroom, dead from smoke inhalation, after a fire gutted his mobile home. The reason he could not escape a fire in such a small building? He collected too much furniture in the home, so that when the fire started he could not find his way around all those obstacles–the blinding and choking smoke overwhelmed him too quickly. While the fire might not have been preventable, the man apparently did not consider how his clutter would prevent his escape in case of fire. This mistake cost him his life.

Finally, in Allentown, PA, five people died in a natural-gas explosion and fire that enveloped a neighborhood here, marking the third major blast in the U.S. since September 2010 and heightening worries about aging gas pipelines that crisscross the nation. The late-night blast was so large that it leveled two homes and damaged 30 others.

UGI Utilities Inc., which provides natural gas to the neighborhood where the blast erupted, said a routine safety check the day before had turned up no sign of problems with the 12-inch-diameter cast-iron pipe that exploded.

The National Transportation Safety Board is set to hold hearings in the coming weeks on the recent blasts and consider improvements in pipeline safety. The review comes amid a growing consensus that the U.S. has a problem with aging infrastructure, particularly underground pipelines that are hard to inspect. The pipe that blew in Allentown had been in service since 1928.

In a Philadelphia gas explosion in January, utility workers were trying to shut off a leaking gas main after residents reported a strong smell of natural gas. The pipe that failed there was a 12-inch-diameter gas main made of cast iron dating from the 1940s. And another explosion in San Bruno, CA in September was likely caused by poor welds in a 60-year old pipeline made of steel.

Another explosion in Allentown in December 2006 happened when an inexperienced contractor unscrewed a plug on a gas meter, filling a nearby home with gas. That home and two others were destroyed by a blast and others were damaged, though there were no injuries The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission last year approved a $160,000 settlement, including pledges by UGI to improve its procedures and training.

In winter, “gas lines are like water lines,” said a UGI Utilities supervisor. “As the ground freezes and thaws, it tends to shift. Sometimes that cracks the pipes. And if gas is leaking out under the street, it’s going to follow the path of least resistance. So it could seep in the ground, into your home, and any ignition source inside the home could create an explosion.”

So the last lesson to take from these terrible stories is this: If natural gas is used in your home or office, always be alert for the smell of gas, and have the phone number of the utility company handy so you can call quickly, before there can be an explosion. Even a small spark can ignite natural gas that’s in the air.