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SAFETY MATTERS: Chemicals and flammable liquids lead to garage fire hazards

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Any structure fire is dangerous and often deadly, but a garage fire sets the bar just a little higher.

Garage fires are often not detected early and they can spread very quickly and violently. A frayed electrical cord or a tool can cause a simple spark leading to a devastating fire due to the nature of the volatile chemicals stored in the garage.

If you’re like me, tinkering around in the garage is one of your favorite past times. Woodworking to car maintenance to rummage sales, the garage is one of the most useful spaces on your property. However, garages can also be the most dangerous spot in your house. Tools, chemicals, fuels, electrical appliances and even intruders are sources of potential hazards to you and your family.

Attached garages pose the greatest risk to your safety. Since they are attached to your home any fire that occurs in this area can potentially threaten your home and family.

Garages are prime locations for fires to start. Most families store both combustible materials and fire starters in the garage. While the garage is a better place to store such materials than in your house, it is vital to store them properly.

In addition, smoke and fire detectors should be installed in your garage and at the entrance to your home. Early detection is the best possible chance for saving your family and home.

Nearly every garage has flammable liquids in storage. Gasoline, oil, and paint are very flammable and found in most garages. The best place to store such items is in a small storage or garden shed away from the house. However, if this is not possible store these liquids in very small amounts. Keep each flammable liquid in a small sealed container well labeled with the chemical it contains. Gasoline should always be stored in an approved red metal or plastic container. It is best to store flammable liquids in a cool dry place and away from pilot lights, electrical appliances or any other source of flame and heat.

Propane cylinders, such as those used for grills or recreational vehicles, should never be stored inside. Even if you do not have a storage or garden shed, it is better to store propane cylinders outside. These cylinders are sturdy enough to remain outside, and the risk of fire is far too great to be stored inside. Propane is highly flammable, and even a small 20-pound cylinder could cause a deadly explosion.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is an odorless, colorless and tasteless gas found in many garages. Fire or smoldering of any kind will produce CO. Never run a car engine for more than a few seconds in your garage, especially with the doors and windows closed; it only takes a few minutes for someone to suffocate. Even with the garage door open, enough CO can remain in your garage to elicit CO sickness. Never use a barbecue grill in your garage. I know we’ve all thought about it (and maybe even tried it) during a rained-out barbecue. But the truth is that even a grill can produce enough CO to cause problems.

Finally, always be sure to have a charged and working fire extinguisher in your garage. These can be purchased fairly cheaply at home improvement and department stores. A combination of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers can be the difference between a minor issue and a devastating fire.

Chris Ward is a firefighter and EMT with the Onalaska Fire Department.

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