Investigators: Fire problem that won't go away

- As Rick Riley retraced how he responded to a friend's call for help, he recalled how he had never seen anything like it before.    

His friend's home was on fire. When he entered the door, Riley saw a chair in flames and his buddy on the floor.  Riley tried to stomp out the flames, but couldn't.  He didn't understand why the fire would not go out.

A similar fire killed a man in Woodbury last year who lived in a senior living apartment complex. Seventy one residents had to be evacuated just before dawn on a cold day in March. Two people were taken to the hospital.

In each case, someone's health was ravaged by a smoking addiction. They were on medical oxygen to stay alive, but could not resist the urge to light up a cigarette.

"It happens all the time and people just can't stop," said St. Paul Fire Investigator, Jamie Novak. "You don't smoke around oxygen, you're just asking to get hurt or killed."

Fox 9 Investigators’ test burn

Novak hopes a few minutes of show and tell will scare people to stop.

"Oxygen doesn't burn, it just makes everything else burn really well," said Novak.

In the burn, as soon as a lighter touched the plastic hose, the tubing turned into a blow torch.  When anything is exposed to the flammable stream of pure oxygen it's like hitting a fast forward button on the flames.
In just 25 seconds, a chair started to burn and in a few more seconds a blanket ignited. In less than a minute, the fire was everywhere.

Riley stumbled upon a similar scenario as he tried to save his friend.

"I grab the hose off of his neck and kept trying to stomp on it. Wouldn't go out, I finally figured that the oxygen was still on," Riley remembered.

His friend suffered burns to his face and arm.

A problem that won’t go away

"I just don't think family members and even the people smoking, realize how dangerous it is," said Novak.

Despite warning labels to never smoke near medical oxygen, Novak said it's a persistent problem.

The have been at least three deaths in three years in Minnesota, lots of property damage, and, as seen in Woodbury last year, innocent people put at risk.

A small device can help minimize the danger.  It's a valve, placed in the tubing, that will automatically cut off the flow of air if an oxygen hose catches fire. It goes out when it reaches the emergency shut off.

According to Novak, it's not the end all safety device, but said it's better than nothing. They sell for about $10.  The ideal solution is to never smoke near oxygen.

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