The third mobile home in approximately a week succumbed to flames when a torch being used to thaw frozen water pipes set fire to a trailer near Mile 90.5 of the Sterling Highway.
Angela Marks and her grandmother, Agnes Cusma, escaped with only the clothes on their backs, but were not injured. Eddy Englestad, who was thawing the water pipes beneath the trailer, suffered from smoke inhalation injuries, was treated by medics on the scene and then transported to the hospital. He received oxygen during transport and at the hospital, and has since been released.
When Englestad applied the propane torch to the frozen water lines under the trailer, he ignited cobwebs that traveled to nearby insulation. Englestad removed burning insulation and, thinking the flames had been stopped, left to retrieve a fire extinguisher to stop any remaining embers.
When he returned, flames had reignited. Englestad crawled under the trailer again and emptied the extinguisher in an attempt to put out the flames, but he was overwhelmed with smoke and forced to retreat.
The fire burned uncontrolled for about four to five minutes before 911 was called.
“I smelt rubber burning and I was like ‘good lord,’” Marks said. “(It smelled) like when your wires are burning in your car that smell.”
Marks looked outside of her door, realized the trailer was burning and rushed to rescue her 85-year-old grandmother.
“I had to literally throw her out the door,” Marks said. “There was a 30-foot flame shooting out of the ceiling. It singed branches off the tree.”
After Marks rescued her grandmother she rushed back to retrieve extra clothing and was scorched by searing heat, she said.
“I ran back to get us coats and I made the mistake of opening the back door,” she said. “Flames shot right up and I could feel it ... . I ran for my life.”
The first Central Emergency Services fire engine arrived within seven minutes and reported flames and black smoke coming from under and inside of the trailer.
The firefighters’ efforts to bring the flames under control were complicated when the main electrical line could not be disconnected at the pole, endangering the safety of any firefighter entering the trailer. Homer Electric was immediately notified to respond and complete the disconnection and the fire was declared under control within 60 minutes of first arriving engine.
Marks and her grandmother, who has emphysema and depends on a breathing machine, lost everything, including their cat, she said.
“Grandma’s (breathing machine) is a lump of plastic,” she said. “I could hear the cat screaming ... . I don’t even have an ID. I lost everything.”
As an alternative to the dangerous practice of unfreezing pipes with propane torches, CES Fire Marshal Gary Hale recommends using a heat gun or hair dryer and said insulation should be removed before any heat is applied.
“We see a lot of people out there attempt to thaw out pipes with propane torches,” Hale said. “(And) see this happen every year.”
Hale said it is unusual to have so many trailer fires in such a short period of time, but that it is not uncommon to see fires quickly consume old trailers. Trailers built before 1976 were made with extremely flammable materials and people living in them should take extra precautions, he said.
Anyone living in a mobile home should have all their electrical work done by a professional and keep extra fire alarms throughout the home, he said.
“We might see two or three mobile home fires through the entire season (fall through winter), but not three in one week,” Hale said.
The last two mobile home fires that CES responded to also occurred in mobile homes built before 1976. The first was caused by an unattended candle and the second by an electrical fire.
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