Cook­ing, wiring lead­ing causes of LV fires

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NEVADA & THE WEST - By Max Mi­chor

Af­ter 23 years in­form­ing the pub­lic for the Las Ve­gas Fire Depart­ment and a nearly 50-year ca­reer in fire­fight­ing, it’s fair to say that Tim Szy­man­ski knows a lot about fire.

What the depart­ment’s pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and in­for­ma­tion of­fi­cer didn’t know un­til about five years ago was what hap­pens af­ter the fire — when the en­gines are gone and the in­ves­ti­ga­tors have fin­ished.

“I help peo­ple af­ter the fire, and I thought I knew all you needed to know to help peo­ple,” Szy­man­ski said. “Not un­til I ex­pe­ri­enced it did I know how dev­as­tat­ing it is to have a fire in your home.”

The fire at Szy­man­ski’s home started with an elec­tri­cal prob­lem in a bath­room vent fan, some­thing he has seen count­less times.

He told the story at City Hall on Wed­nes­day, when the Las Ve­gas City Coun­cil is­sued a procla­ma­tion for Fire Pre­ven­tion Week — com­mem-

orated dur­ing the week that Oct. 9 falls, in re­mem­brance of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Szy­man­ski said the lead­ing cause of house fires in Las Ve­gas is cook­ing ac­ci­dents, like grease fires and unat­tended stoves.

Prepa­ra­tion can save your life

It’s hu­man na­ture to panic when a fire starts in your home, Szy­man­ski said, but be­ing pre­pared and pay­ing at­ten­tion can go a long way to­ward pre­vent­ing se­ri­ous dam­age.

The safest and fastest way to han­dle a grease fire is to snuff it out by plac­ing a pot lid or cook­ing sheet over the burn­ing pan, Szy­man­ski said.

“When peo­ple see those flames they think they’re go­ing to ex­tend up into the ceil­ing, which they will even­tu­ally, but in those first cou­ple min­utes you can take con­trol of it,” he said.

In most places, cook­ing fires usu­ally hap­pen be­tween 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., but Las Ve­gas is a 24-hour town, Szy­man­ski said.

“So we have a lot of cook­ing fires at 1, 2 o’clock in the morn­ing — se­ri­ous cook­ing fires in which peo­ple have died.”

When the worst hap­pens and homes do catch fire, Szy­man­ski said, the first thing to do is leave, es­pe­cially if there are se­niors or chil­dren in­side.

“If you can’t put the fire out, just leave it alone,” he said.

House fires be­come deadly af­ter about the first three min­utes, due to high heat and smoke or car­bon monox­ide that be­come trapped in­side the home, Szy­man­ski said. If pos­si­ble, close the door to the room where the fire be­gan to keep smoke and flames from spread­ing, but get out as fast as pos­si­ble.

Many fires are pre­ventable, but some­times they’re started by what he calls “freaks of na­ture”— bizarre, ran­dom ac­ci­dents that are im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict.

Szy­man­ski said he once re­sponded to a fire where a woman had ac­ci­den­tally dripped paint thin­ner on her mat­tress while clean­ing spilled paint off her head­board. The chem­i­cal re­acted with the polyeurethane foam mat­tress, and hours later the heat from the re­ac­tion ig­nited the mat­tress while the woman and her hus­band were sleep­ing on it.

“Some­times peo­ple do ab­so­lutely noth­ing wrong,” he said, “but it’s just those freaks of na­ture. That fire starts up and then they have to go through the same thing we did.”

The sec­ond-most-com­mon fires are caused by elec­tric­ity or elec­tron­ics. That in­cludes over­heated cell­phones or dam­aged wiring, in­clud­ing the bath­room fan that caught fire in Szy­man­ski’s home.

Be care­ful with elec­tri­cal de­vices

Szy­man­ski said you should never leave a phone or com­puter plugged in and sit­ting on a bed. He also said it’s wise to in­vest in a qual­ity surge pro­tec­tor for items that need to stay plugged in.

Next on the list: Call a li­censed elec­tri­cian for elec­tri­cal work and main­te­nance. The desert heat is mur­der on elec­tri­cal wiring and can de­grade the in­su­la­tion, leav­ing live wires ex­posed.

“If you don’t know what you’re do­ing with elec­tric­ity, don’t play with it and don’t try to do it your­self,” Szy­man­ski said.

Bad wiring can lead to slow, smol­der­ing fires that most peo­ple don’t no­tice un­til it’s too late, Szy­man­ski said. Call the fire depart­ment to in­ves­ti­gate burn­ing smells and light hazes of smoke, even if there’s no vis­i­ble fire.

The lead­ing cause of fa­tal fires has been the same for 20 years: care­less smok­ing. Cig­a­rette butts should be com­pletely ex­tin­guished be­fore they’re thrown away, and se­niors who use med­i­cal oxy­gen in their homes or take med­i­ca­tions that cause drowsi­ness should avoid smok­ing in­side or al­to­gether, Szy­man­ski said.

“We’ve seen homes catch on fire be­cause peo­ple were stopped at a light or a stop sign, and they threw their cig­a­rette out and it got into the brush, spread re­ally fast and got up to a house,” he said. “If you’re go­ing to smoke, you’ve got to smoke re­spon­si­bly.”

Dried-out Christ­mas trees, clogged dryer ducts and chem­i­cals or paint left in the sun are also com­mon cul­prits in dis­as­trous fires.

This year, Fire Pre­ven­tion Week runs from Sun­day through Sat­ur­day and co­in­cides with the Las Ve­gas Fire Depart­ment’s 76th an­niver­sary. Fire­fight­ers will spend the week speak­ing at schools and apart­ment com­plexes across the val­ley to share tips on fire safety.

Bizuayehu Tes­faye Las Ve­gas Re­view-Jour­nal

Las Ve­gas Fire Depart­ment of­fi­cer Tim Szy­man­ski speaks Wed­nes­day about causes of house fires in Las Ve­gas.

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