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Using open flame to thaw frozen pipe invites disaster

The warnings came fast and furious over the last week from fire departments, plumbers, insurance adjusters and the Red Cross:

Do not use an open flame to thaw frozen pipes.

It may ultimately result in thawed pipes, they said, but only after your house burns down in the process.

Despite the advice, there were two fires Monday when maintenance crews at apartment complexes in the Southtowns and Northtowns did just what they were urged not to do.

There was a late-morning blaze at the Green Lake apartment complex on North Lake Drive in Orchard Park that left nine families homeless and damage estimated at $1 million. That was followed by a 6 p.m. fire at an apartment building at 631 Kenmore Ave. in the Town of Tonawanda that left four more people homeless and an undisclosed amount of damage. Luckily, there were no injuries reported in either case.

“The potential for damage is enormous,” Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said of improperly attempting thaw frozen pipes. “The potential for loss of life is huge.”

Whitfield said several that similar fires also have occurred in the city this winter.

“Annually, we have devastating fires where people lose their homes, if not the loss of life,” Whitfield said.

It’s a phenomenon that crops up every year when temperatures plunge and pipes freeze.

And the harshness of the last two winters has only made the problem worse. For instance:

• On March 3, a Lockport man tried using a propane heater to thaw some pipes at his Elmhurst Drive East mobile home and sparked a blaze that destroyed it.

• A firefighter suffered minor injuries battling a blaze in a two-story home at 215 Scoville Ave. on Feb. 7, 2014, after a “torpedo heater” was used to thaw frozen pipes.

• A Jan. 24, 2014, fire caused $12,000 in damage to a 2½-story home at 211 Linwood Ave. that resulted from “careless use of a torch” to thaw basement pipes.

• A 69-year-old resident of Lockwood Drive in Lockport sparked a fire while trying to thaw frozen water pipes Jan. 19, 2014, damaging his home.

• A two-alarm blaze erupted at 200 Abbott Road in South Buffalo during the tail end of the first blizzard of 2014, in January, causing $120,000 in damage and displacing four adults and a child. A resident tried to thaw frozen pipes with a “torpedo heater” fueled by propane and started the fire.

Whitfield and others said that using an open flame indoors is the biggest “no-no” of all.

“An open flame is the worst thing you can do,” said Brian K. Multerer, chief of the Eggertsville Hose Company. “The flame is what’s going to start the fire. That gets the wood products or insulation going. Next thing you know, the wall’s on fire and it goes from there.”

Fortunately, there haven’t been any calls this year in the fire company’s jurisdiction, Multerer said, but during a blizzard last winter, a homeowner trying to thaw frozen pipes started a fire that got into the wall. “He was very lucky he didn’t burn his house down,” Multerer said.

Using other electrical devices carries further hazards, including electric shock from coming into contact with dripping water. Whitfield said electrical appliances should always be plugged directly into the wall, not into an extension cord, and cautioned against overloading electrical systems tied into old fuse boxes. They should never be left unattended, he said.

“Any heating source you put in a closed, confined space has to absolutely be monitored,” Whitfield said.