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Stored gas in sealed garage ignites house fire

Fumes from improperly stored gasoline exploded in garage Tuesday morning, starting a house fire that caused an estimated $200,000 in damage, officials said.

Fumes from four 5-gallon containers of gasoline were ignited when a water heater in the unventilated garage of a home on Shell Circle clicked on to heat water for the dishwasher, fire investigators said.

The gasoline was being kept to fuel an electric generator that homeowner Monica Williams used during the power outages following Hurricane Jeanne. Williams, 50, was the only person in the house when the fire started. She escaped without injury.

The fire was ruled an accident. It caused major structural damage to Williams' home, said Dunedin Fire Department Deputy Fire Marshal Steve Strong, who came to the scene as part of Dunedin's mutual aid program with Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. The home will require new walls and roof trusses.

The house, which Williams purchased in December 2001 for $128,000, is "probably going to be totaled out," Strong said.

The explosion occurred around 7:30 a.m., shattered the garage's windows and blew off the garage door, leaving it in a crumpled heap in Williams' driveway. Debris from the blast went through the windshield of Williams' Chevy Cavalier parked about 8 feet from the garage. Pieces of glass from windows in the garage were found up to 10 feet away.

Strong said it was the distance the debris was found from the garage that led him to conclude an explosion preceded the fire.

Williams had not used the generator since about 7 p.m. Monday, when power was restored to her home.

About 2 a.m. Tuesday, investigators said Williams smelled fumes in her home. She then went into the garage and closed the windows to keep the odor out of the house.

The gasoline continued producing vapors in the sealed garage until they filled the area, Strong said.

The fuel was stored in "everyday, ventilated plastic containers like you would buy off any store shelf," said Jim Fletcher, an inspector for Palm Harbor Fire Rescue.

The cloud of fumes only needed a spark, which came from the electric water heater 15 feet from the gasoline containers. In a sealed environment, like the one created in the garage, it does not matter how far containers are stored from possible ignition sources, Strong said. The explosion would have occurred sooner if she owned a gas water heater, which uses a constantly burning pilot light, he said.

When firefighters arrived at Williams' home after a 7:30 a.m. call, flames and smoke were visible from outside of the house, said Kristy Patterson, public information officer for Palm Harbor Fire Rescue. In all, 23 firefighters in 11 units from both Palm Harbor Fire Rescue as well as Tarpon Springs Fire Rescue responded.

The main body of the fire was extinguished by 7:52 a.m., Strong said, and the home was declared free of flames at 8:29 a.m. after the entire home had been searched. The scene was turned over to inspectors at 9 a.m.

All the contents of the garage were damaged severely, and most were unrecognizable, while some items inside the home survived without significant harm. The fire blackened the garage's rafters.

Williams, who was shaken after the incident, declined to comment. Debbie Cramer, Williams' sister, said the family had not been told know how long it would have to be out of the house. In the meantime, Williams and her teenage son will stay with family, Cramer said.

Neighbor Margaret Cammuse and her son, Jason Cammuse, who had a significant grease fire in their home Aug. 2, came over to comfort Williams, Patterson said.

Jason Cammuse, 29, gave Williams contact information for Bay Area Disaster Kleenup, the restoration company that is working on his family's home.

Workers from the company arrived at Williams' home Tuesday afternoon to secure the house. Bob Spoto, field supervisor for Bay Area Disaster Kleenup, said his crew would have the job done and the home secure before dark Tuesday.

Nick Collins can be reached at (727) 771-4307 or ncollinssptimes.com.

STORING FUEL

+ All containers release fumes and most are designed to do so.

+ The safest place to store containers is in an outdoor shed that has good ventilation and is located far away from the house.

+ Alternatively, keep containers outdoors in a well-ventilated area.

+ Fire safety officials never recommend storing gasoline containers, no matter how few or how small, in a garage or home. There are too many potential sources of ignition.

+ Be aware of ignition sources in your home and garage, especially pilot lights for appliances that use natural gas.

Source: Palm Harbor Fire Rescue Inspector Jim Fletcher.

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