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Electricity Malfunctions Cause Many Fires

Flames raced through the attic of Omadatt Pershad's townhouse in Burke, forcing residents of the house to jump out the second floor windows and narrowly escape the inferno.

Initially, it was thought to be caused by an electrical explosion after a sound around the time of the fire. The houses in the Greenfield Park neighborhood off Guinea Road are all electric and a neighbor, who chose not to give his name, said the sound reminded him of a transformer.

"I just heard a 'crump,' it was weird to hear what I thought was a muffled sound," he said.

This was around 4 a.m. on Thursday, June 12, and Pershad looked at the charred remains the next morning. The area smelled of fire.

"I think it was electric. When I came, up was the roof [in flames]" as he motioned with his arms.

Pershad rents out two of the rooms on the second floor to two women.

"One jumped out of the window, the other, the roof fell in on her. She's all right," he said.

According to the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department spokesperson Dan Schmidt, the cause was an electrical malfunction of some sort. The damage was too severe to determine exactly what the malfunction was, Schmidt said.

"It was electrical related," Schmidt said.

The first arriving units reported fire and smoke visible through the roof. An additional alarm was dispatched, bringing more than 50 emergency personnel to the scene. The fire was extinguished in approximately 30 minutes and the damage was estimated at $150,000.

The next day, 95-year-old Hazel King died as a result of a fire in Springfield. That fire started in the kitchen and fire investigators determined the fire was caused by an electrical appliance or device as well.

ALTHOUGH FIRES can start in a number of ways, electrical malfunctions are frequently the culprits. An overloaded plug with wires going everywhere seem like a likely cause, but not necessarily, said Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesperson Lt. Raul Castillo. In an attempt to hide plugs and extension cords, many are put under rugs or behind furniture.

"It's pushed under the carpet and people step on it. After a period of time, it breaks some of the wire, which burns the plastic," Castillo said.

"The plastic coating on the plug cord burns away, exposing a live wire which gets hot and ignites the carpet or draperies," he added.

"We recommend power strips. If appliances are not in use, turn them off or unplug them," he said.

Brad Strange, a home inspector with Guardian Home Inspections in Fairfax, said the first place he goes on the home inspection is to the circuit box, but briefly checking the electric aspect of a house is just one part of his inspection.

"I look at the electric panel; aluminum wire can be a cause for fire. I'm looking for a frayed wire. I'm also looking for an opening in the panel box that's been punched out," he said.

Aluminum wire was popular back in the 1970s and early 80s but isn't used in houses built since then.

If a house has aluminum wire, it doesn't need to be rewired, just outfitted with breakers that are compatible or copper "pigtails," attached to the wires. "As long as it has a breaker that will accept the aluminum wire," he said.

According to Strange, between 1965-1973, there were 1.5 million homes nationwide wired entirely with aluminum wire.

"At the time it was accepted." he said, "Before 1960 the systems weren't grounded. The rules evolved."

WATER AND ELECTRICITY do not mix either, Strange said. For plugs near the sink or shower, a special "ground fault interrupt (GFI)" plug is recommended. These are recognized by a red button in the middle that trips if the plug gets wet.

"Wire could get corroded from being wet. That's why we have ground fault systems in bathrooms now," he said.

Warning signs, according to Strange, are warm cover plates on wall plugs, a strange odor from outlets, flickering lights and sparks and "arcing" at the switches. "Arcing" is when electricity jumps off the wires onto another electric conductive circuit.

If the breaker box is labeled AL/CU, it might be aluminum.

"You want to replace that," he said, and recommends a licensed electrician. The going price is $35-40 a breaker, he said.

"Sometimes you can get a breaker box that's not wired properly," Strange said.