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How Not to Fix Frozen Pipes: Mishap Illustrates Danger of Using Flames

Dan Morse(c) 2006, The Washington PostGlenwood Springs, CO Colorado

WASHINGTON – If he could do it again, Charles “Junior” Woodland said of the home repair project gone awry, he wouldn’t try to thaw frozen pipes with a propane torch. “I would have left it alone,” Woodland, 63, said recently, recalling the fire that destroyed part of his Southern Maryland home. Every winter, people nationwide burn down all or part of their homes this way. The phenomenon is rare, but it led to the November death of an 86-year-old Wyoming man, and it prompts warnings from the American Red Cross, insurance companies and fire departments. “Never use a torch!” a local fire and rescue department advises on its Web site, and its spokesman said, “The sensible thing is to call in a plumber.” But like many weekend handymen, Woodland figured he would give it a shot. He lives in a one-story, three-bedroom house owned by his mother, Madeline Woodland, 81, in Bel Alton, about 40 miles south of here. Madeline raised all but the oldest of her 15 children there. They come back for gatherings, including at Christmas, squeezing more than 50 bodies inside. “She is the glue that holds us together,” Madeline’s daughter Thelma Woodland likes to say. On the morning of Dec. 8, the temperature dipped below 24 degrees. At 11 a.m., Madeline sat in her living room, sorting her many medications for diabetes, high blood pressure and other ailments. Junior became convinced an outside pipe was frozen. He walked outside to the north side of the house, blocked from the sun. A five-foot storage tank held kerosene, which was fed via copper pipe to a furnace in the house. On the ground: a blue, electrically heated cord designed to wrap around pipes to prevent freezing. The cord had been removed during repairs to the tank. Junior had meant to reattach it. Now it was too brittle. He got his torch. Fire officials say that what Junior tried – torching heating fuel lines – is particularly dangerous. Torching frozen water lines also is risky: Copper pipes can carry heat several feet to flammable materials behind walls, and torching also can thaw water so quickly it boils, rupturing the pipe and spraying scalding water. These are among the ill-advised fire-safety behavior that winter brings. Barbecue enthusiasts place briquettes inside fireplaces, but unlike regular fires, which produce enough heat to create an upward chimney draft, barbecues are cooler and can release carbon monoxide in the home. Some people burn their Christmas trees in the fireplace, creating the opposite effect: fires so hot they can ignite the chimney. Some owners of kerosene space heaters, wanting toasty toes, place them against cloth-covered ottomans or fill them with gasoline. It is unclear exactly how Junior’s torch led to the fire. A spark may have ignited part of the house. When he saw the fire, he hurried inside. “Mama, get out of the house!” he yelled. Using her walker, she made her way to a large tree in the front yard, blocking herself from the wind. Junior tried to douse the flames with buckets of water, making three trips inside the house – the last one nearly trapping him inside the debilitating smoke. He called 911. Firefighters stopped the blaze, saving the bedrooms and much of the living room. Investigators ruled it accidental, assessing damage to the house and contents at $150,000. Junior and Madeline have temporarily moved in with relatives. Last week, a daughter brought Madeline to the house, which was cleared of enough smoke for her to reenter for the first time since the fire. She slowly walked to her houseplants. They were badly burned, but she found one bulb and one surviving plant, which she placed in a plastic bag to take with her. It could be a lot worse, Madeline said. She had looked forward to Christmas at a daughter’s large house in suburban Washington. Without everyone squeezing into the old house, though, it won’t be the same. “I wish I could be here in my little home,” Madeline said.


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