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Frozen pipes in a South Buffalo home turned out to be more than an annoyance late Wednesday night when a propane-fueled “torpedo” heater a resident was using to thaw the pipes touched off a two-alarm blaze.

The fire was an unfortunate occurrence that repeats itself every winter when pipes freeze and inexperienced individuals try to solve the problem on their own rather than hire an expert, according to Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr.

“This guy was in a crawl space trying to thaw pipes, and he lost everything,” Whitfield said of the fire, which occurred late Wednesday at 200 Abbott Road. “Luckily, no one got hurt.”

The blaze, reported at about 10:20 p.m., caused $120,000 damage and left four adults and one child homeless and in need of assistance from the Red Cross, fire officials said.

It was a close call for firefighters, who barely escaped from the second floor of the 2½-story, wood-frame residence because the fire spread rapidly inside the walls, according to Division Chief Patrick Britzzalaro.

“We had to pull our firefighters out of there because there was so much fire in the walls. We briefly thought some of our firefighters were trapped, and we did an emergency evacuation,” Britzzalaro said.

“With these types of fires, people don’t realize that they are also heating up the wood and that something in the channel of the wall above the pipe could catch fire out of their sight,” Britzzalaro said. “Don’t forget, heat rises. We’ve had fires where people will tell us ‘well, I heated that pipe five hours ago,’ but fires can smolder a long time.”

The safe solution when pipes freeze, according to the chief and commissioner, is to call a plumber or the landlord, who can bring in an expert.

“Plumbers have the equipment and various techniques to thaw the pipes safely without the use of an open flame,” Britzzalaro said.

Whitfield added that he understands people might have trouble affording a plumber, but the risk of setting a fire is far worse.

A decision on whether to order an emergency demolition of the house will be made today after Britzzalaro and a city building inspector assess the structural damage.

“The house was heavily damaged,” the chief said.

Reports that the response to the fire might have been delayed because of hydrants buried in snow were inaccurate, Whitfield said.

“Some hydrants were immediately available, and there was no delay in fighting the fire,” the commissioner said. “When additional equipment arrived, we had to dig out other hydrants.”

email: lmichel@buffnews.com