A West Side man trying to thaw frozen water pipes Tuesday twice had to call Buffalo firefighters to his home and prompted some cold weather advice from Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield.
The call for the first fire at 1177 West Ave. came in at 11:51 a.m., fire officials reported. The homeowner put out the fire in the first-floor bathroom wall before trucks arrived, and damage was minimal.
“The first time we went to his house, he was using a hand-held torch, and we told him you can’t use an open flame. So he went and rented an electric heat gun,” Division Chief Patrick M. Britzzalaro said. “Some of these heat guns give off temperatures anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 degrees, depending on the model, and that is sufficient enough to ignite old dry wood in a house like that.”
“It’s like a blow-dryer for your hair, but it gets a lot hotter and does not have an open flame,” Whitfield said. “So he put it in the wall in that confined space. The device heated up, melted and it started another fire.”
The second fire call came in at 1:52 p.m. This time the fire traveled up the bathroom wall after the heat gun ignited wooden studs in the wall’s channels, Britzzalaro said. Damage was set at $10,000.
“Most of the homes where pipes freeze occur in residences that are much older, and a lot of them do not have insulation,” he said. “This type of fire won’t be the last one we have while temperatures are in the single digits and teens, unless we get the word out that you can’t use an electric heat gun or an open flame.”
“It’s not the pipe itself that ignites the fire,” Whitfield said. “It’s the surrounding material. Oftentimes the pipes run under the floor or inside the walls, and that material is usually wood, and that’s what starts the fire.
“It may be a delayed reaction,” Whitfield continued. “You’re working in confined spaces where you may not see anything until the fire manifests itself. Once there is enough heat, oxygen and fuel, you’ll get a fire. We are talking substantial loss of property and potential loss of human lives.”
A similar incident Jan. 8, a day after the blizzard, caused a two-alarm fire in a 2½-story home at 200 Abbott Road in South Buffalo. The house was a total loss.
A tenant there was using a propane-fueled torpedo heater to try to thaw the pipes, police said. The blaze caused $120,000 damage and left four adults and one child homeless, fire officials said.
Firefighters barely escaped from the second floor of the residence because the fire spread rapidly inside the walls, Britzzalaro reported at the time.
“Don’t take matters into your own hands,” Whitfield cautioned. “Call a professional plumber or contractor to deal with the issue of frozen pipes.”