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Fatal Fire: Medical Oxygen and Smoking Cause

Fire officials warn about medical oxygen causing fires in homes.

The state fire marshal's office released the following information:

State Fire Marshal Stephen D. Coan and said that home medical oxygen played a significant role in . Medical oxygen fueled a Haverhill fatal fire at 477 Washington St. on March 7 whose cause is still under investigation.

“Oxygen soaks into bedding, clothes, hair, furniture and the air, creating an oxygen-enriched environment. This makes things catch fire more easily, fire spread faster and burn hotter," Coan said. "As more and more people are bringing medical oxygen into the home, they need to understand the new fire risks they also bring into the home.”

Investigators have determined that the Shrewsbury fire started on the bed in the bedroom. There was evidence of a melted glass ashtray on the bed and electrical and arson causes have been ruled out. The fire was jointly investigated by members of the Shrewsbury Fire and and state police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal and to the office of the Office of Worcester District Attorney, Joseph D. Early, Jr.

“There is no safe way to smoke inside a house where medical oxygen is in use, but there are other fire risks as well," Chief Vuona said. "People should not use electric razors, hair dryers, or curling irons while using oxygen or get within 10 feet of an open flame such as a candle, a gas stove, or woodstove.”

“Since we’ve been tracking these fires in 1997, there have been 85 serious fire incidents involving home oxygen, 33 deaths, 58 civilian and 7 firefighter injuries," Coan said. "We have had three fires in a month, two causing deaths, where home oxygen played a role.”

The three fires include the fatal fires in Shrewsbury and Haverhill fires and a non-fatal fire in Hopedale on Feb. 8.

The Haverhill fire at 477 Washington St. is being investigated by the Haverhill Fire and Police Departments, and state police assigned to the Office of the State Fire Marshal and to the Office of Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett. The investigation team has not made a final cause determination and the medical examiner’s office has not made an official identification of the victim.

“There was medical oxygen in this home and that definitely increased the speed at which the fire developed and grew, quite possibly making escape much more difficult in a situation where seconds count,” Coan said. Investigators have determined that what witnesses described as an “explosion” was a BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) of an oxygen tank.

The Department of Fire Services has been running a public awareness campaign for three years on Home Oxygen Fire Safety

“We are trying educate physicians that they must connect their patients to smoking cessation services when they prescribe oxygen not only for the patient’s health but for the safety of everyone who might enter the building, including firefighters,” said Coan. “Our campaign is designed to educate patients, families, caregivers as well as physicians. We have pamphlets to facilitate that discussion between patient and caregiver, posters for patient waiting rooms and housing authorities, and materials for local fire departments to increase public awareness.”

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