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Rural Alaska house fire exposes dangers of propane use

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder

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By the time Harold “Hap” Kremer arrived at his parents' Cold Bay home, they were trying to crawl out a side window to escape a growing fire.

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It was a snowy December day, and Kremer’s parents, Harold and Linda Kremer, had made a desperate phone call to their son moments before.

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According to the Aleutians East Borough, Kremer recently shared the story with the Borough Assembly. The account served as a close-to-home reminder of the dangers surrounding home propane use.

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Harold was investigating a propane leak in the couple’s dryer when a dangerous explosion erupted, starting a fire and burning him badly.

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"The combustion blew the door past the jamb," Hap told the assembly, "and they couldn’t get out of the house."

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While the two were initially trapped in the house, they called their son from a cell phone. Hap works for the Department of Transportation in Cold Bay, and has access to the community’s only firefighting equipment. Hap arrived in time to see his parents escaping into the heavy-falling snow outside.

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“He was yelling at me to shut the propane off,” Hap said. “I didn’t notice until later that the fire and explosion had burned his pajama bottoms right off of him.”

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Harold and Linda were treated at the local clinic before being medevaced to Anchorage nearly eight hours later. While Linda suffered a few bumps and bruises, Harold was treated for several deep burns.

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While the house suffered some serious damage, the fire crew was able to save the Kremer’s home

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“The explosion blew the roof line off and the end wall out a bit,” Hap said. “It’s amazing the structure itself could be saved. Most of the fire was contained to the bathroom where the propane dryer is. The sheetrock and wiring was messed up. We had to suck the roof line back down.”

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Harold and Linda are staying with their other son in Homer for the time being.

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Between 2003 and 2007, U.S. firefighting crews respond to approximately 1,170 home fires related to liquid propane gas, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Those fires caused 34 deaths, 135 injuries, and $8 million in damage to property.

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The Aleutians East Borough reminded citizens in their recent newsletter to take precautions with their home propane systems, and to be aware of the dangers they present.

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Propane is heavier than natural gas, and will collect around the lowest level available to it instead of dissipating into the air.

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Users should be cautious with appliances and tanks contained in an enclosed area. A propane leak can collect in such spaces, then explode when the appliance is ignited for use, or even when a light switch is turned on.

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The NFPA recommends that users follow manufacturer instructions on propane equipment and tank storage. Tanks for large equipment like stoves and ovens should be stored outside the home at all times, the association says, and they caution against using or storing tanks larger than one pound inside a home.

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Occasional inspection of home propane equipment by a professional may help detect leaks or equipment malfunctions before they pose a serious threat.
If you suspect a propane leak, the NFPA recommends you leave the home immediately and call the fire responders in your area.

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This article was originally published in The Bristol Bay Times and is reprinted here with permission. Hannah Heimbuch can be reached at hheimbuch(at)reportalaska.com.

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