The story blazed through the neighborhood like wildfire.
Tom McCamy's cell phone recharger was sitting just where it usually sat, on top of an antique armoire in the little Capitol Hill gallery he owns with his partner, Tim Edmonds. When the fire marshal called that night "he asked me specifically if I had a cell phone," said McCamy. "Then he asked if it was plugged into the recharger, which it wasn't, and then I got a lecture. It's a terrible fire hazard, he told me. The transformer can heat up and melt the plastic case."
The Phoenix Gallery is now being gutted, and what furniture was rescued is at a conservator. The damages, McCamy said, total around $130,000.
A fire caused by a cell phone recharger? Every cell phone user in earshot went scurrying off to unplug.
But wait. That fire "remains under investigation," said Kathryn Friedman, public information officer for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services. So is the recharger off the hook?
Yes and no. "It is very possible that in the early stages of the investigation they might have noted the cell phone recharger," Friedman said. Because the fire happened about a month ago and the cell phone recharger hasn't been blamed officially, "it's probably not the source." She doesn't want to raise any alarms about rechargers. Just like most civilians, she keeps her own plugged in.
Though the recharger may have been innocent of causing a fire this time, electronic components of all types are frequently guilty. After 23 years as a firefighter, said Pete Piringer, spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, "nothing surprises me anymore." Many different electronic components can cause a fire: "cell phones, radio chargers, electric shavers, hair dryers -- the list goes on and on."
He said, "Sometimes the transformer that you plug into the socket gets hot, and if you have combustibles too close, things catch on fire. It could be insulation in the wall, a wood floor, carpets. The electrical system causes heat, and fires start when they transfer heat from one source to another."
If you read instruction manuals, you probably see the cautions about leaving your electronic toys plugged in. In an era when a potato might carry a sticker cautioning about explosions in the microwave, however, which warnings can you more or less safely ignore?
Almost none, said Brendan Voss, a claims operation manager for Homesite Insurance Group, a national homeowners insurance company. "So much is insuring against the brain cramps people have. We see so many preventable fires; most are preventable if people are paying attention. We get a little bit complacent: 'I've done that 20 times before.' But it's that one time you take the attention away."
Extension cords are another "usual suspect," said Piringer -- particularly extension cords running under carpeting, "where people walk on it." He said, "The insulation around the wire that carries the charge can wear and catch combustibles on fire: chairs, rugs, papers, floors insulation."
Caution should also be used when plugging things such as vacuum cleaners and Christmas lights into extension cords. Pay attention to the manufacturer's instructions.
"Generally speaking, appliances like vacuums have a cord of appropriate size already," said Piringer. "If you get a little cheap extension cord, it's probably not appropriate for your vacuum. With one of those big, outside, orange extension cords you're probably in pretty good shape."
Said Voss: "Electricity is a strange thing. People say, if it's not broke, don't fix it, but you have to take a look under the hood every now and then."
Irregular currents caused by storms and power surges can create problems, he said. Wiring in older homes may no longer be up to the task, and "frequently we find homeowners, or prior homeowners, have done some work -- an addition or finished a basement -- without permits."
When you're buying a house, the home inspector "will look at your panel box and check for inconsistencies: a switch that's not working properly or scorching on the outside of an outlet that might indicate a fire," said Voss. "Any issues the inspector sees, he'll indicate on his report. Have them checked out. Electricity is not something you want to mess around with."
The worst place for a fire to start, said Voss, is in the basement, particularly if you store any chemicals there. "Combustibles around utilities that have a pilot? Keep those areas clear." There was a case in which a man was spray-painting in the basement and the nozzle got stuck. He dropped the can, which rolled under the hot water heater, and boom, a $700,000 loss.
Workbench areas in the basement or garage can be dangerous if there are materials that can catch fire. Rags soaked with linseed oil and other volatile chemicals generate their own heat and should be disposed of outside.
In this climate, people don't have to worry much about fireplaces for the next few months, though both wood-burning and gas units can be cause for concern.
Susan Baronoff's isolated house on Maryland's Eastern Shore was lost to a fire in the flue of her wood stove. Ice storms were raging that winter and everyone was losing power. "We kept the fireplace going at full bore -- day after day after day," she recalled.
Finally, the storm broke, and she made a run for groceries. When she returned home, "I noticed flames leaping out of the chimney. I was concerned, but not that concerned. . . . I thought maybe there were always flames leaping out of the chimney -- usually I was inside, so I wouldn't have noticed."
In case you're wondering: Flames are not a good sign.
Her husband and their dogs "were all cozy in the living room, enjoying -- as Richard put it -- the unexpected efficiency of the fireplace. It was as if we had finally really gotten the hang of this living without electricity thing. But when I mentioned the flames, he ran up to the attic."
They tried to get things under control with a fire extinguisher. "For a moment," she said, "it wasn't too big -- we thought he had it. But then it exploded."
"We see a lot of chimney fires," said Voss. "You say, 'Man, it's a cold day. I want to get a hot fire going.' . . . But if you haven't cleaned your chimney in a while, creosote is very flammable. When it catches, it sounds like a jet engine roaring up your chimney -- and if there's a breach in the flue or the chimney, it can catch the framing members."
That's what happened in Baronoff's home. The fire burned through the flu and lapped up the family photographs and mementos stored in the attic on its way down to devouring the red leather sofa and the complete works of Dante Alighieri.
Gas fireplaces that are mounted on walls are occasional culprits. "It's usually an installation issue, something was not properly spaced," Voss explained. "You have to make sure they're not too close to the framing. If you have a two-by-four close to something putting out that level of heat, it can ignite. As long as it's installed by a professional and routine maintenance is performed, you're probably okay."
When it comes to fire, the most dangerous place in the house also happens to be the coziest. "Kitchen fires are number one on the list, no doubt," said Voss. 'They're preparing a meal and they have the heating elements going. They're absent-minded, pick up the phone, and before you know it, you hear the crackle of something burning."
Voss, who keeps two fire extinguishers in his kitchen, said the worst offender is hot grease. Fried chicken can too quickly become fried kitchen. "Homeowners don't realize how volatile that oil is." A gust of wind from an open window, and poof, up go the draperies and the cabinets above the stove.
"Most people haven't been in that situation," said Voss, and they panic, trying to douse the fire with water.
"When cold water hits the super-heated grease, you'll have fiery embers spraying. You may have confined the fire to your stove top, but now you have other areas going -- the floor, cabinets, it's a flamethrower effect." If you don't have a fire extinguisher handy, he suggested grabbing for the flour or baking soda to smother the flames.
Voss unplugs his toaster, coffee maker and other countertop appliances whenever he goes out (as does Piringer). And he would never think of heading off for the mall while the oven is self-cleaning, "Those things get super-hot, supercharged," he cautioned.
"Cooking is the leading cause of home fires," said Margie Coloian, director of public affairs for the National Fire Prevention Association. "In 1999, the last year for which we have statistics, there were 102,400 . . . and property damage of $531 million. Cooking leads the pack."
But other home fires are "on the upswing," she said.
Clothes dryer fires caused by dirty lint filters are extremely common. A recent study by Coloian's association said dryers were the most frequently involved appliances in home fires. What happens: "The lint gets very warm, and the heat builds up and catches fire," she said. "Every single time I use the dryer, I clean it. If I'm doing four loads, I clean it four times."
And leaving a candle burning in an empty room? "Most people think, 'Big deal,' " she said. "But anything can happen with an open flame."
Candles in the bedroom are most dangerous of all, causing 40 percent of all such fires. While a little heat in the boudoir can be welcome, there's nothing exciting about dancing around in your skivvies with a fire extinguisher.
Surprisingly, fireworks are fairly low on the list of home fire hazards. "Generally, people using fireworks are in heightened state of alert," said Voss.
He does, however, recall one such blaze. "Folks were shooting bottle rockets, and one landed on a shake roof, smoldered and eventually caught the roof on fire. The homeowners, who were on vacation, came home to no house."
There's not much you can do to protect your property from careless neighbors while you're rocking in a hammock in Maine, but there are a few things you can do to head off a nasty homecoming. Voss suggests unplugging all small appliances and electronics, and having a neighbor look in from time to time while you're gone.
You might also "check your outside lights for birds' nests," he advised. "Floodlights used as nesting areas? They will ignite."