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Marijuana-growing operation blamed for fire that critically burned woman

A marijuana-growing operation played a significant role in causing a house fire that seriously burned a city woman, authorities said Friday.

Firefighters rescued the 30-year-old woman, and she remains in critical condition with first-, second- and third-degree burns over 60 percent of her body, according to Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

After the two-alarm blaze at 378 Moselle St. was extinguished, firefighters found several heaters and other appliances in a system powered by improperly tapping the electric meter in the home. There also were several electrical cords powering the appliances on the upper floors, Whitfield said.

The setup “was contributory to the fire, I’m sure,” the commissioner said.

Buffalo police also are investigating. Authorities believe the pot growing operation caused the blaze, though a final determination will be made once investigators complete their work.

As for the rescue, four firefighters from Ladder 14 rushed into the burning house to search for victims before fire hoses were set up to douse the blaze.

When they got to the top of the stairs on the second floor, the firefighters split into two, two-member teams.

Firefighter Tom O’Leary found the unconscious woman in a second-floor bedroom, and firefighters carried her down the stairs. Once they got her out, firefighters administered CPR.

“It was really, sort of an incredible rescue,” Battalion Chief Mike Swanekamp said.

The flames were so intense that they melted O’Leary’s breathing apparatus.

When time mattered most for the unconscious woman, Buffalo firefighters “got her out really quickly,” Swanekamp said.

The battalion chief hailed the firefighters’ work, which often relies on making the best judgments based on what they see without having complete information.

“A victim in a burning house – seconds matter,” he said. “Sometimes a minute or two minutes later isn’t quick enough. It was really an impressive job.”

The woman was unresponsive when firefighters found her and she went into cardiac arrest several times.

A 30-year-old man also was burned, but managed to escape on his own, Swanekamp said. The man was conscious and also was taken to ECMC, he said.

A third person in the two-family house, another woman, escaped the fire with her clothes smoldering from the heat, but she wasn’t burned.

The fire began on the second floor and spread to the attic. The home had a finished attic, which allowed heat to build up more rapidly than the rest of the structure, Swanekamp said.

The blaze at the home, between East Ferry Street and East Woodlawn Avenue, was reported at 5:45 a.m. Damage was estimated at $110,000.

The house next door, separated by a driveway, was undamaged, also in part because it had siding containing asbestos.

In most cases, firefighters who get to a blaze early on will find the smoke inside the building is stratified.

“If they stay real close to the floor, a lot of times there’s enough clear air to see the layout or if someone’s on the floor,” the battalion chief said.

Once firefighters begin to spray water from the hoses, “everything turns to steam and visibility actually drops,” Swanekamp said.

Searching for victims inside a fire requires firefighters to stay low, oftentimes crawling on the floor.

“The fire will tend to roll over your head,” he said.

– News reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report.