7 On Your Side

Potentially explosive fuel gel might still be in homes despite recall

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Firefighters are warning of a potentially explosive product that may still be in your home or the home of your neighbor. Fuel gel is used to light decorative candles and has been blamed for the deaths of two people and injuring at least 86 others.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a massive recall more than a year ago, but millions of these products were sold and the reality is many people may still be using it.

The scars on Antoinette Walker's face from second degree burns tell the story. The professional Polynesian dancer from Anaheim had to put her career on hold for six months until her wounds could heal.

"The explosion happened and it happened so fast, I didn't even realize that I was on fire," she said.

It was an explosion similar to the one that happened right in front of Nancy Grimm and her dog "Oliver" in her backyard in Folsom.

"It exploded, it popped out, there was fire immediately on Oliver," Grimm said.

Oliver suffered second and third degree burns over 25 percent of his body.

Both Grimm and Walker used fuel gel to light a popular candle-like decoration called a firepot.

The Palo Alto Fire Department agreed to demonstrate what can happen when lighting a firepot.

"What's dangerous is the flame is virtually invisible, you can hardly see it," department spokesperson Brian Baggott said.

And because people can't see the flame, Baggott says users try to refuel the firepot before the flame is extinguished.

"So Erik's going to reach in with an arm that's connected to the fuel to attempt to refill the pot," he explained during the demonstration.

Within seconds, flames shoot out horizontally from the bottle. A minute later a boom and soon after the explosion, the mannequin catches on fire.

"So that was a fairly good demonstration of what not to do," Baggott said.

The firefighters demonstrated the product four times, and three of the four times, an explosion and fire occurred. Twice, fire shot out far enough to catch the mannequin on fire. Another time it ignited the table cloth in flames.

A thermal imaging camera used by federal regulators conducting their own testing captures the intense heat.

"It's combustible; the fuel gel can catch on fire and basically burst out of the actual container itself when you're trying to refuel them," product liability attorney Eric Chaffin said.

One manufacturer criticized the release of the government video, which 7 On Your Side obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

BirdBrain is a maker of the firepot fuel gel. It sent a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, writing, "The video does not include the use of a snuffer, which BirdBrain provides... and instructs its user to use before refueling a firepot."

Last year the CPSC announced a voluntary recall of BirdBrain's firepot clear gel fuel and fuel gels from nine other companies. But not everyone got the word, including a Palo Alto firefighter who has been using the recalled product for a year.

"I wasn't aware until our captain told us we were doing this opportunity with Channel 7 News," firefighter Javier Olazaba said.

This lack of awareness doesn't surprise attorney Whitney Davis.

"People don't hear about recalls enough; they don't know that there's a defective product in their garage that can light their house on fire," Davis said.

For the last year, federal regulators have been working with manufacturers and consumer advocates to come up with new regulations overseeing fuel gel. There's no timetable on when this will be completed.

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Tags:
consumer product safety commission, product recalls, fire, fire safety, 7 on your side, michael finney
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