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Potted plant fires baffle chief

July 10, 1999|By RICHARD F. BELISLE, Waynesboro

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Cecelia Hoyle had no idea last fall when she pulled up her gladiola bulbs to store in her garage for the winter that they would nearly burn her house down.

Another Mercersburg-area family had a similar close call on Father's Day when a potted plant in a second-floor room of their Linden Avenue home started smoking, said Nick Barbuzanes, chief of the Mercersburg, Montgomery, Warren and Peters Fire Department.

Barbuzanes said his department has responded to fires of similar origin in recent months, including two in mulch piles.

The phenomenon has left Barbuzanes scratching his head.

"I don't know if it's spontaneous combustion, chemical or what. I checked with other chiefs in the county and they said they haven't seen fires like it."

Steve Hill, spokesman at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Md., said any organic material can produce heat as it decays. If it's contaminated with other material, it can heat up even faster.

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"We are not normally concerned with potting soil, but there's no guarantee what's in it," he said. "What we're dealing with here is unusual. Such fires do occur, but they're rare. All kinds of things come into play."

Fires can break out in piles of mulch, in hay and sileage, in any kind of material that generates heat in the decaying process. "That's why farmers let their hay dry in the field before they put it in the barn, he said.

Cecelia Hoyle recounted her near tragedy.

"We went down to Virginia for a few hours one day after Christmas. When we came home and opened the garage door, smoke poured out. We couldn't see where it was coming from, but we knew we had a fire. We thought it might be electrical. We threw the breaker and called 911."

Barbuzanes' department responded. Firefighters checked the walls for fire as well as the fireplace, Hoyle said.

After much searching, Barbuzanes found the source of the smoke - gladiola bulbs Hoyle had stored in cardboard boxes filled with peat moss for the winter.

"There must have been over 100 bulbs in those boxes," she said.

When Barbuzanes took the box outside, it burst into flames, she said. The second box didn't appear to be affected, but it, too, was taken outside as a precaution, she said.

"The next morning when my husband went out to go to work that box was burned up too," she said. "Believe me, it was scary. I won't have that stuff around anymore."

In the Linden Avenue incident, Barbuzanes said the homeowners had been seeing and smelling smoke in their house for a day. They opened a window and the smell went away. The next morning it was back, he said.

He went to the house with a thermal imaging camera, a device that locates hidden fires. By that time, no fire could be found.

"We couldn't find a fire with the camera, but we could still smell smoke," Barbuzanes said. "By that time the soil in the pot had burned up. It was lucky it wasn't a plastic pot."

Barbuzanes said he wants to spread the word about the phenomenon without starting panic.

"I don't know what caused (the plants) to burn, but we want to make people aware that these things can happen," he said. "They shouldn't be scared and take all their plants out of the house, but they could check them once in a while by feeling the soil with their hands to see if there is any heat, especially in plants in front of east windows that get a lot of sun."

Three weeks ago, firefighters in Mercersburg responded to a fire in some mulch that was spread around a local bank. No damage was done to the building.

Barbuzanes said the department responded four times to an area sawmill to put out fires in mulch piles.

In June, the Waynesboro Fire Department responded to a fire in a concrete silo. They decided to seal the silo and let the fire burn itself out rather than risk burning up equipment taking the material out of the silo so it could be spread out and extinguished.

"If a silo is full, it's impossible to unload, but if it's too close to a barn, then we have to put the fire out," Barbuzanes said. Pouring water on a silo fire is dangerous because water can trap gases and cause an explosion, he said.

One way of dousing a silo fire is to insert a long tube into the silo to locate hotspots, then pour water down to them, he said.

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