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    Default Lightning starting structure fires

    I just got back from a fire in a modular home (mobile home). It was storming out and the lady said she was at the door watching the storm when she heard a loud bang and a bright flash at the same time. She then looked over at the natural gas fireplace and it was on, even though she didn't have it on. Could it be possible that the static electricy in the air ignighted the fire place? She then shut it off and then she went around the house and was unplugging computers and such when a passer by (former firefighter of ours) said theres smoke coming from the sofit of your home. She then called 911 and we arrived. She said from the time she saw the flash to the time the guy came to the door she said it was about 2-3 minutes.

    The fire damage was limited to the attic space on a few of the light weight trusses and sheeting. What I am wondering is if lightning struck the house, wouldn't there be damage to the outside roof? Theres nothing else in the area that would be an ignition source. The only thing it could possibly otherwise be is a 14 gauge electrical wire that is wired to a kitchen ceiling fixture. This is in the area of origin and is burnt for 3 feet and good on the ends. I think it was caused by expouser from the fire, not it shorting out. I didn't notice an beading or anything on the bare wire. But that was the only breaker that was tripped. But it would obviously trip if two wires touched and shorted out. Could lighting have been an ignition source even though there is no damage to the outside structure?

    Any comments would be great.


    Mike
    Last edited by firemanmikey; 07-05-2008 at 03:35 AM.

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    Quote Originally Posted by firemanmikey View Post
    I just got back from a fire in a modular home (mobile home). It was storming out and the lady said she was at the door watching the storm when she heard a loud bang and a bright flash at the same time. She then looked over at the natural gas fireplace and it was on, even though she didn't have it on. Could it be possible that the static electricy in the air ignighted the fire place? She then shut it off and then she went around the house and was unplugging computers and such when a passer by (former firefighter of ours) said theres smoke coming from the sofit of your home. She then called 911 and we arrived. She said from the time she saw the flash to the time the guy came to the door she said it was about 2-3 minutes.

    The fire damage was limited to the attic space on a few of the light weight trusses and sheeting. What I am wondering is if lightning struck the house, wouldn't there be damage to the outside roof? Theres nothing else in the area that would be an ignition source. The only thing it could possibly otherwise be is a 14 gauge electrical wire that is wired to a kitchen ceiling fixture. This is in the area of origin and is burnt for 3 feet and good on the ends. I think it was caused by expouser from the fire, not it shorting out. I didn't notice an beading or anything on the bare wire. But that was the only breaker that was tripped. But it would obviously trip if two wires touched and shorted out. Could lighting have been an ignition source even though there is no damage to the outside structure?

    Any comments would be great.


    Mike
    Short answer is yes.

    Longer answer is it doesn't have to hot the bldg. directly to cause the fire. There are any number of avenues, ie; hitting the ground outside and coming in through the ground wire, hitting the nautral gas service, hitting the electrical service or hitting a tree next to the house. I had one where the lightning hit the ground and came in through the dog's "hidden fene" wiring.

    The fireplace is an interesting observation. There is a recall on some corrugated gas lines that are not grounded correctly.

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    Lighting (either direct or indirect as George described) starting a fire in a house is pretty common. Sometimes all it does is fry some stuff and make a burning odor. Sometimes it becomes a working structure fire. All depends on what gets juiced.

    The fire place is perplexing. I assume it is a manual valve you have to turn on to make the fireplace go? I don't know how that valve could just turn itself on. Was there a lit pilot light? If not, I don't know how it would ignite itself either. That is really strange. However, if it was an electronicly controlled fireplace, that is understandable. 30 million volts tends disrupt things like that
    Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.

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    Nothing is certain when it comes to lightning. We had a fire about 3 years ago from a lightning strike. Funny thing was, this house had lightning rods installed. Caused almost $2 million in damage.

    That was a strange fire anyway. First time in 25+ years Ive seen fire burn downward. Looked like something straight out of "Backdraft".
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    Default yah

    That is odd because if the fire place ignited, the gas would have to of been on at the time of the strike. Correct? You say she went and turned it off after it ignited. So the gas was running with no lit flame during the storm????? Is anyone following me? This is a repeat of a post above but I'd like to know more. If a lightning strike can actually somehow open the gas line or something... ?

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    I am sure that there are many possibilities. Could have been that it had as electric starter (and the strike tripped it somehow), or the vibration from the strike might have cracked the valve open. Have seen many strange occurrences from lightning strikes. I wouldn't waste too much time trying to figure them out. (I will leave that for the experts.)

    The important thing is that the occupant had minimal damage, and that is always a good thing.
    Just someone trying to help! (And by the way....Thanks for YOUR help!)

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    well seems to me that anything can happen when it is lightening involved we need more research on it to tell if it can turn the gas on or not at least evreyone is ok

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    Here's my guess...

    With electronically operated gas fireplaces, the flow of gas is controlled by an electrically operated valve and it is ignited by an electronic ignition system.

    The extreme electrical surge of a lightning strike could very conceivably cause the gas control valve to open as well as provide the "spark" to ignite the gas.

    Or, maybe it was something else entirely.





    We get a ton of lightning strike structure fires. Every time we get a good thunderstorm blow through, we can almost be guaranteed a fire somewhere. We went to a good one just last week.
    A few months back, we had 6 working structure fires dispatched in a 13 minute period...All lightning induced. I believe that was a record for us.
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    It could have been simply that she had it on and forgot it was on, then believed the strike caused it to turn on.

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    Who runs their fireplace in JULY?
    Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.

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    Investigators soon learn that people have very strange ways to explain what they see and what they do. I'm sure they did it in this case, but if you were interviewing that lady and she told you she turned it off, I would ask her to explain how she turned it off. That would explain alot.

    The fireplace coming on does not strike me as that unusual for all the reasons 4949 stated.
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    4949 probably nailed it.

    To go even further with his theory, many modern gas fireplaces even have remote controls. Mine has the option, but I'm not that lazy YET.

    If I had to guess, I would bet the valve was open with the pilot lit and she simply turned off the gas.

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    Quote Originally Posted by nmfire View Post
    Lighting (either direct or indirect as George described) starting a fire in a house is pretty common. Sometimes all it does is fry some stuff and make a burning odor. Sometimes it becomes a working structure fire. All depends on what gets juiced.

    In the last big fire we had, a mobile home was hit by lightning. The owner said it fried some of the circuits. But the fire that destroyed his house was a day later, started in the kitchen area. Is it possible that those circuits, that were working, just smoldered for a day or so before the house caught fire?

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    Quote Originally Posted by allison20 View Post
    In the last big fire we had, a mobile home was hit by lightning. The owner said it fried some of the circuits. But the fire that destroyed his house was a day later, started in the kitchen area. Is it possible that those circuits, that were working, just smoldered for a day or so before the house caught fire?

    We had a small attic fire about a month ago in an apartment attic. It had been hit by lightning the previous evening. The resident stated she smelled smoke that night, but thought nothing of it. The following morning, we were called when it finally lit up and burned through the gable.

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    Quote Originally Posted by allison20 View Post
    In the last big fire we had, a mobile home was hit by lightning. The owner said it fried some of the circuits. But the fire that destroyed his house was a day later, started in the kitchen area. Is it possible that those circuits, that were working, just smoldered for a day or so before the house caught fire?
    Absolutely. It could have been smoldering up there somewhere hidden the entire time and finally got going the next day. One of my friend's (now also a FF/EMT in my department, had half his house burn down in a similar manner. Not lightning but a cigar but outside. It smoldered for over a day and then half the house burned down.
    Even the burger-flippers at McDonald's probably have some McWackers.

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    Quote Originally Posted by fireman4949 View Post
    Here's my guess...

    With electronically operated gas fireplaces, the flow of gas is controlled by an electrically operated valve and it is ignited by an electronic ignition system.

    The extreme electrical surge of a lightning strike could very conceivably cause the gas control valve to open as well as provide the "spark" to ignite the gas.
    Sounds like a fancy get up. Do you think that is what was really installed in the mobile home? I can't believe those things can have any kind of fireplace.
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    Quote Originally Posted by MemphisE34a View Post
    Sounds like a fancy get up. Do you think that is what was really installed in the mobile home? I can't believe those things can have any kind of fireplace.
    Memphis, they're quite common in mobile homes.

    Then again, so are big screen TVs. Work rural Alabama and you will see TVs that cost more that the trailer that houses them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by MemphisE34a View Post
    Sounds like a fancy get up. Do you think that is what was really installed in the mobile home? I can't believe those things can have any kind of fireplace.

    Not as fancy as you might think, anymore. You'd be surprised at the "innovations" that are making their way into "mobile domiciles" these days.

    Just like flat screen TVs and whirlpool tubs were luxury items just a few years ago, they are now standard equipment in many mobile homes.

    I have seen some newer MHs that (other than the fact that they're mostly still built like a Yugo) have fancier trimmings than some expensive site-built homes costing 10x the money.

    So far as fireplaces in MHs goes, I'd say not having a FP in a newer MH is the exception.
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    Quote Originally Posted by allison20 View Post
    In the last big fire we had, a mobile home was hit by lightning. The owner said it fried some of the circuits. But the fire that destroyed his house was a day later, started in the kitchen area. Is it possible that those circuits, that were working, just smoldered for a day or so before the house caught fire?
    No. But it IS possible that the electric system was compromised in a hidden area and caused the fire.
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    Quote Originally Posted by nmfire View Post
    Absolutely. It could have been smoldering up there somewhere hidden the entire time and finally got going the next day. One of my friend's (now also a FF/EMT in my department, had half his house burn down in a similar manner. Not lightning but a cigar but outside. It smoldered for over a day and then half the house burned down.
    It is highly unlikely that a fire in a trailer will smolder for more than a couple of hours before it is detected by the occupants. The construction is not conducive to long smoldering times.

    If you are talking about a residential mulch fire that smoldered for over 24 hours, I guarantee that did not happen. A mulch layer a few inches thick will not smolder but for a few minutes before it either goes out or begins to open flame.
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    Quote Originally Posted by MemphisE34a View Post
    Sounds like a fancy get up. Do you think that is what was really installed in the mobile home? I can't believe those things can have any kind of fireplace.
    I did a fire in one where they took out an entire bedroom to put in a huge garden whirlpool tub.
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    Guess what I went to last night...

    Not just another lightning strike structure fire, but one that actually ignited the natural gas fireplace. The fireplace was indeed one that had an electronic ignition system and gas flow valve.

    The bolt hit a tree behind the house, ran up a hill through the stream of water coming from a gutter downspout, and entered the house through the exterior wall. The fireplace was a good 30' away from the point of entry of the lightning bolt. The bolt traveled through the CATV, 120V and PX cables to the entertainment center and fireplace in the L/R.

    The fireplace gas flame was very small, only an inch or so high, but it was unquestionably a gas flame, nonetheless. Shortly after the gas was shut off at the meter, the flame burned out.

    There was also a lot of smoldering in the framing around the firebox and the built-in entertainment center as well, which required some fairly extensive overhaul, including removal of the entire firebox the ensure we got to it all.

    In my 18+ years on the job, this is the first time I've actually seen a gas fireplace ignite from a lightning strike...Kinda weird since this very thread came up just a few days ago.
    With regard to the original poster's question, I now stand firmly behind my "theory" of how this could have occurred.
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    I found this weird when she said the fire place turned on by itself. I said maybe it was static electricity in the air, I don't know. I don't have to much experience with lighting strikes. I just figured there'd be some type of damage to the roof of this structure.


    Mike

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    Quote Originally Posted by firemanmikey View Post
    I found this weird when she said the fire place turned on by itself. I said maybe it was static electricity in the air, I don't know. I don't have to much experience with lighting strikes. I just figured there'd be some type of damage to the roof of this structure.


    Mike
    Lightning (electricity) takes the path of least resistance. Always. That means it can enter from virtually anywhere...A fence, a tree, the ground, power/phone/CATV lines, plumbing, a body of water, you name it. Many times, there are no obvious signs of a point of entry. Other times it's absolutely unmistakable.

    100 million volts can certainly cause some pretty weird things to happen.
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    Folks, let's not forget one thing about investigating a fire where there is a hypothesis that lightning started the fire. You have to verify that lightening was in the area. Validation of this hypothesis will require more than the usual "holy crap" stories.

    Many times, the NOAA weather forecasts can be used. However, I do not rely on them. I use a service called StrikeNet from Vaisala.

    http://www.vaisala.com/weather/products/lightning

    You plug in very specific parameters and you are provided with an extremely comprehensive report. The cost is about $95.00 per report. The advantage here is that you have scientific evidence, as opposed to anecdotal evidence, to back up your findings.

    You can check with the insurance investigator on these cases to see if they are going to run some sort of lightning strike database check. If it is a case I am investigating, I will almost always share this info right away with the locals.

    One other avenue you can try is the local power utility. They will keep records of lightning strikes in order to defend themselves from civil suits. They may provide you with this info if you ask pretty please.
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