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Surviving Fires: Holiday decorations ignite tragedy

11:38 PM, Dec 4, 2012   |    comments
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COON RAPIDS, Minn. -- Steve Mosborg looks very much at home next to the crackling fire in the house in Coon Rapids.

"I think fireplaces are cozy," he says.

But this is not Mosborg's home, decorated for the holidays with wrapped presents and a lit Christmas tree in the living room. The Edina man has come here at the request of KARE 11 to help re-create the Christmas day fire that nearly killed him.

Over two days of shooting, with assistance from the fire departments in Coon Rapids and St. Paul, KARE 11 took a dozen cameras inside a home to burn it down.

Room by room, KARE 11 looked at the origin of fires just like Mosborg's to see what could be learned by being present before the first flicker of flame.

PART 1: Surviving fires: How common mistakes can lead to devastating fires

We'll get back to Mosborg shortly, but first the Coon Rapids home has more lessons to offer.

Jamie Novak, a fire investigator for the St. Paul Fire Department, is in a back bedroom lifting a frying pan onto a halogen torchiere lamp. He's not suggesting anyone would actually cook breakfast on a lamp but Novak has a point to make.

"The old halogen lights were quite dangerous," he says. Within minutes he drops a pat of butter in the pan. It sizzles. He follows up with an egg, which quickly cooks to perfection. "That's about a thousand degrees," explains Novak as the egg continues to sizzle.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission knows of 11 deaths and nearly 200 fires caused by torchiere halogen lamps.

The CPA says 40 million of the lamps were sold before 1997 when safety features were added. Novak says millions of those are still in service, many in the homes of unsuspecting families.

Novak removes the pan and lifts a curtain onto the lamp, simulating what a gust of wind might do.

RELATED: Take the Home Safety Challenge

In 16 seconds the curtain is on fire. It soon spreads to an upholstered chair. "Now we've got flames rolling across the ceiling," says Novak, as he backs out of the room.

Novak purchased the lamp at a thrift shop. Anyone could have bought it.

Coon Rapids firefighters rush in to put out the fire before it can advance beyond the bedroom. That's important, because there's more to learn in the house - outside in the yard too.

Megan Tarau joins us on the home's deck. The St. Paul woman had her own house fire to deal with last July from a cause she didn't even know was possible: a potted plant.

Novak investigated Tarau's fire. "I was shocked when he told me what happened," she says.

Tarau had friends over that evening who went outside to smoke. At least one of their cigarettes was put out in a potted plant which was rooted in potting soil.

Despite the name potting soil is really not soil at all - at least not dirt.

Instead, it is made up of things like peat moss and ground pine bark which can catch on fire from a cigarette and smolder for hours until it finds something to ignite like a plastic flower pot or wood siding.

Novak places several cigarettes in flower pots on the deck of the Coon Rapids home. In less than an hour, the plastic pots are melting. He moves a fan closer to simulate wind and flames are soon shooting up the home's siding.

"All from a cigarette into the potting soil," he reiterates.

If not for a smoke detector and an alert paper boy, Tarau hates to think what might have happened to her family.

And since we're talking about smoldering fires, Novak investigates several fires every year cause by people throwing hot coals into garbage bins.

Even when sparks aren't present, Novak says heat can hide for days in ashes from charcoal grills and fire pits. He demonstrates in the garage of the Coon Rapids home. Within minutes a smoldering fire has erupted into flames.

Coon Rapids had a half dozen similar fires last year. "I betcha there's at least 20 in St. Paul," adds Novak. His advice: douse your coals in water before dumping them in the trash, even if they appear to be out.

Back inside, Novak has rigged a toaster to jam when he inserts a couple of pastries. Too often, says Novak, toasters can jam on their own, especially older models.

In fact, just a few years ago the occupants of a Coon Rapids kitchen were called away suddenly to respond to an emergency. They were firefighters and the jammed toaster at their station started a fire which caused thousands of dollars in damage to their kitchen.

It's the reason Novak tells people to keep their toaster away from paper towels and out from under cabinets.

His advice is right on target, as Novak's jammed toaster catches fire and soon burns a roll of paper towels hanging above it. "Now we're catching everything on fire," says Novak, as the fire spreads to the cabinets.

Left to burn, the whole house would be toast. But there's one fire left to recreate: the Christmas day fire that burned Steve Mosborg.

In hindsight, Mosborg's knows a series of bad decisions lead to his injuries. "I was burned over 63 percent of my body," he says. "I was in a coma for six-and-a-half weeks and I had nine skin graft surgeries."

The nightmare began 12 years ago as he cleaned up Christmas wrapping paper in the living room. "I was crumpling up the paper rather than putting it in garbage bags; I was just stoking the fire with it."

On the mantle, Mosborg and his wife at the time, had decorated with real pine garland. "It was just hot enough for the sparks to come out and catch the live garland."

Already dry, the garland provided quick fuel for the fire, which raced across the mantle to the Christmas tree standing next to the fireplace.

Mosborg's first instinct was good. "I got my daughter and my wife to safety at the side door."

After that, Mosborg made a terrible error. He went back inside to try to save his house.

Mosborg grabbed the burning tree and tried to twist it down and "drag it to the front door." As Mosborg describes it, the tree "exploded."

Unable to open the door because of the changing pressure in the house, blindly, Mosborg followed his wife's frantic calls.

"I had to walk through the smoke and the fire to get to the side door out to safety," he recounts. Mosborg's back, hands, head and feet were severely burned. A paramedic told one of his neighbors he probably wouldn't survive.

"Cozy to tragedy doesn't take very long," he says.

As Mosborg watches, Novak allows the fire in the Coon Rapids home to chase some crumpled wrapping paper from the fireplace to the Christmas tree.

As the tree is consumed, Mosborg moves to the porch and then to the home's front yard. Novak follows a few seconds later, as fire rolls across the ceiling.

Mosborg should have done the same that Christmas day 12 years ago. His physical and emotional pain, the strain on his family and $1.2 million in medical costs, "all of that would have been avoided just by walking out the door," he says.

Firefighters and $70,000 in repairs did manage to save Mosborg's Edina home. As for the home in Coon Rapids, firefighters pour on just enough water to keep the fire from spreading to the neighbors.

"There's no way anybody survives this fire right now," says Novak, as windows break out and the flames roar.

Novak watches from the street. "It almost feels like walking up and facing your fears, in a way," he says.

Last year - nationwide - more than 2,500 people perished in house fires.

As Novak is fond of saying, the three leading causes were men, women and children.

(Copyright 2012 by KARE. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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