6 Tampa Bay homes caught fire after Idalia. Why flooding may be to blame.

Exposed electrical systems were the likely culprit of the fires in flooded homes.
A severely burned house in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres area caught fire during flooding from Hurricane Idalia, which struck Florida's west coast on Wednesday.
A severely burned house in St. Petersburg's Shore Acres area caught fire during flooding from Hurricane Idalia, which struck Florida's west coast on Wednesday. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Aug. 31, 2023|Updated Sept. 4, 2023

It was a tragic paradox seen time and again across the Tampa Bay region after Hurricane Idalia passed through: houses on fire amid knee-deep floodwater.

Two houses burned down in the Shore Acres neighborhood of St. Petersburg in the storm’s aftermath, and four homes were damaged or destroyed in Pasco on Wednesday.

The causes of the two Shore Acres fires have not yet been determined, said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue spokesperson Garth Swingle, but the fact they both occurred in flooded homes makes electrical the most likely culprit. Salt water is a great conductor of electricity, and when storm surge meets an exposed outlet or wire, sparks fly.

The same was true in Pasco, said Emergency Response Manager Andrew Fossa on Wednesday.

Dangerous wind conditions and flooded streets make it harder for fire crews to respond in time. Dave Durst, who lost his Pasco County home Wednesday, said it took nearly an hour for firefighters to reach his home. It’s the same problem rescue crews face during emergency evacuations, Fossa said.

“We can’t help if we can’t get there,” he said.

Gas and propane tanks brought indoors prior to any storm are an added danger during a house fire. Flammable liquids should always be kept in an approved cabinet, Swingle said.

Homes aren’t the only thing vulnerable to electrical fires during flooding conditions. Electric vehicles are also susceptible when their batteries come in contact with salt water. A Tesla caught fire in Pinellas Park on Thursday, according to Deputy Fire Chief Rob Angell, who was at the scene.

“Our speculation is that, due to the floodwaters interacting with the battery system, that could be the reason why the vehicle caught fire,” Angell said. “These things don’t just catch fire because they’re being towed.”

Residents should shut off their electrical systems at the breaker before evacuating or before flooding hits, Swingle said. Upon returning home, keep the electricity off until you’ve done a full inspection of your home for flooding or damage.

If there is any evidence of water or structural damage, contact an electrician before turning the electrical system back on, and always assume any exposed wire is live, he added.

Times staff writer Justin Garcia contributed to this report.

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