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Surviving fires: How common mistakes can lead to devastating fires

11:33 PM, Dec 3, 2012   |    comments
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COON RAPIDS, Minn. -- Fire does not schedule home visits, nor do firefighters arrive by appointment.

In the interest of fire safety, we decided to change that.

During two days of shooting, a crew of firefighters and KARE 11 photographers with a dozen cameras gathered at the most deadly place for fires in Minnesota: home.

Jamie Novak, a St. Paul Fire investigator, helped us locate a three-bedroom rambler in Coon Rapids that was already scheduled for demolition.

RELATED: Take the Home Safety Challenge

St. Paul and Coon Rapids firefighters helped make the house livable again by adding furniture and carpeting.

It could be anyone's home in anyone's neighborhood - could be yours. It was, in a sense, Patty Fellner's.

Fellner was newly married and at home in an apartment when fire made one of those surprise visits. "Third degree (burns) on my hand, the rest of my hands and arms were second degree. My face was first degree."

Fellner has come to the Coon Rapids house at KARE's invitation, where four decades later she will confront her demon as she witnesses a recreation of the kitchen fire that sent her to a hospital burn unit and scarred her for life.

"I can tell you in detail everything that happened," she says. "You don't forget that."

But first we go to the home's back bedroom and the nation's number one cause of fatal residential fires: careless use of smoking materials.

For Novak, there is no gray area. "You shouldn't ever smoke in bed," he states emphatically. To make his point, Novak begins dropping lit cigarettes on the sheets and blankets of a bed.

Drowse off and drop one cigarette and it's possible to get lucky. But eventually luck runs out, as it did just last May for a couple who died in a St. Paul house fire. Smoking in bed was the conclusion investigator Novak reached.

Novak points to the bright burning end of one of the cigarettes. "That cherry on the cigarette is about a thousand degrees," he explains. Novak says even so called "fire-safe" cigarettes can keep burning when dropped, until the bedding around them begins to smolder.

That's exactly what happens in the Coon Rapids house. Then, several minutes after the experiment begins, a flame starts to flicker on a blanket. Within minutes the bed is consumed and fire is rolling across the ceiling.

Ten Minnesotans died in smoking fires last year, one out of every five fire fatalities.

"Go ahead, put it out!" shouts Novak to waiting Coon Rapids firefighters. With a few bursts from their hose, the fire dies.

But we're just getting started.

We relocate to the garage, where Novak soaks several cotton cloths in linseed oil, a wood conditioner used in many paints, sealers and stains.

As it dries, linseed oil generates heat. Novak puts the rags in small piles in several cardboard boxes.

A few hours later, one of the piles is spewing pungent smoke and blackening the cardboard around it. Others are smoldering.

Novak checks a temperature gauge he's inserted in the most active pile. "We're up to 800 degrees now," he observes. You may have heard the term "spontaneous combustion." This is a living, breathing example of what that means.

Novak knows it's only a matter of time until the box ignites. "There we go," he says. "We have ignition at about 862 degrees." The box is now on fire. Soon the garage wall will be too.

In his 28-year career, Novak estimates he's investigated 30 similar fires. "And then you tell people that's what happened, they're like, 'No way, it's not from my rags.'"

Now imagine the same thing happening at night, with no one awake to call the fire department.

Fortunately, it's all preventable. Read the label on the back of the can when painting or staining. If the material inside can spontaneously combust, rags should be placed in a metal can filled with water, then covered. Even an old popcorn tin will do.

Back inside in a second bedroom we have more company. "A candle was left burning in my house," says Brian Miller, who has taken a seat on a bed.

Miller answered our invitation to meet us at the Coon Rapids house to share his own fire experience.

It happened last April, at Miller's St. Paul home. He was asleep at 3 a.m. "I awoke and saw the flames," he recounts.

A candle left burning by a departing house guest melted down till the wax and burning wick "slid right off the table and onto the floor."

Miller was lucky. His guest room was damaged, but if not for the newly installed smoke detector that woke him his fire would likely have quickly spread just as it does when Novak tips over a lit candle in the Coon Rapids home.

Over the course of a few minutes Novak's fire spreads to a pillow, then to the curtains and finally consumes the entire room, before firefighters move in to put it out.

Unattended candles claimed seven lives in Minnesota last year. "I was very close to this," said Miller, who watches first from the room and then from outside. "This will stay with me for a long time."

What happens next just down the hall is something every homeowner should remember too.

"People who don't have garages, they're storing their gas cans inside their house," says Novak. To demonstrate, he sets down a can of gas in a hallway, a few feet away from our home's water heater. From a safe distance, Novak pulls over the gas can with a rope, spilling the contents.

For a few seconds nothing happens - just some gasoline puddling on the floor. But nearby an open flame is burning at the bottom of a first-floor water heater. Novak knows that eventually the vapor from the gasoline will find the flame. He's right.

Suddenly, an audible "whoosh" is followed by flames racing across the floor from the water heater to the gas can. In an instant, the entire hallway is filled with flames as firefighters race in to put the gasoline-fed fire out.

"That was only one quart of gas," says Novak. "If some kid was standing in the middle of that puddle he'd be severely burned and probably in the burn unit right now."

This brings us back to the kitchen, where Patty Fellner is recounting her brush with fire as a 19-year-old newlywed.

She had been heating shortening in a pan to make French fries. Fellner's back was to the pan on the stove but instinctively she knew.

"I heard it burst into flames. I picked it up."

Fellner carried the burning pan to the sink of her apartment, "and I turned the water on."

This time, she will not be at risk as her actions are recreated. Fellner takes a seat on the front porch watching though the kitchen window as Novak pulls a rope to open the water faucet on the burning pan of oil he's just placed in the kitchen sink.

Fellner winces as fire races up the kitchen wall and across the ceiling. Her face glows through the glass and she recoils in her chair.

"That would be exactly what I did with mine," she says.

Fellner's scream, the burned skin her husband would find on the door knob, the scars - both physical and emotional - all of it comes flooding back as she dabs away tears.

Forty-one years later the hurt caused by a flash of fire has not gone away.

(Copyright 2012 KARE. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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