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Up in flames

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It could have ended badly. And like all near disasters averted, the details in the description several safe days later had a macabre humor: how it started with a casual, "Why don't we grill some burgers for dinner," then the flames, the garden hose and the firemen. Oh, and the new tank of propane.

It's barbecue season. One just need mention last week's Iron Mountain fire, started by an overturned charcoal barbeque, to underscore the dangers.

Let my friends' little adventure be a lesson.

While one pal prepared the burgers, the other hooked up the new propane tank and lit the grill. Along with a tremendous whoosh came a holler to bring a wet towel. By the time Karen got outside, the inadequacy of a wet towel was evident and she grabbed the hose. Flames shot out the top of the full tank. With water from the hose cooling but not extinguishing the fire, Dennis ran inside and called 911.

Firemen soon appeared to rescue my friends from themselves. What was routine for the firemen and heart-stopping for my pals was soon over and fodder for philosophical pondering later. What had happened?

They had narrowly escaped a BLEVE, a fireman-term for Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion. Karen averted the explosion part of a BLEVE by hosing the tank, keeping that liquid propane below the boiling point. As the liquid heats up and burns in a tank, gas vapors form; as the level of the liquid lowers, more gas forms inside. A relief valve allows the safe and gradual release of gas. Propane explodes because the gas doesn't escape quickly enough.

A securely attached hose carries the gas to those fake lava rocks we grill over. The perils that exist with propane exist for the most part along the hose. A poorly connected hose could result in propane burning directly at the tank -- as my friends experienced. An old hose could crack, especially if it spent the winter outside, uncovered, unprotected. A hose too near a hot grill could fail.

New safety regulations went into effect in April. New tank designs have more overflow protection and more secure hook-up mechanisms. When you switch out an empty tank for this summer's full one, be sure you're getting the new, safer design. When you hook it up, listen for the hissing of escaping gas. To test the hose, coat it with some liquid soap and look for any air bubbles. This is especially important around the hook-up.

May firemen never visit your house for any reason other than social, but if the worst should happen and a fire start in the wrong place, stay calm, hose it down, call 911. The guys from Station 1 were terrific, both at the scene and days later when I got more info from two of them, firefighters Daniel Doyle and Paul DiPilla. Invite them to your next barbecue.

-- Nancy Harley

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