Fire Chief: Amsterdam man severely burned, house damaged in pipe-thaw attempt

The man was airlifted to Syracuse
The fire scene on Church Street Tuesday
The fire scene on Church Street Tuesday

AMSTERDAM — A Church Street resident was airlifted to the Clark Burn Center in Syracuse Tuesday after he set his house on fire while attempting to thaw pipes with a kerosene heater, officials said. 

The fire, which engulfed the rear of the two-family home at 202 Church St., destroyed the attic and collapsed the roof. The blaze started shortly before 11:15 a.m., which is when the Amsterdam Fire Department responded to the call. 

Officials did not release the name or condition of the man who was injured as of Tuesday night.

“It appears the homeowner was attempting to thaw out the pipes with a salamander-type kerosene heater,” said Fire Chief Michael Whitty. “He got the back of the house started. When we pulled up, it was already straight up the back of the house and into the attic.” 

The building’s plumbing ran through the back porch area, which is where firefighters believe the pipes froze.

The homeowner is believed to have been the only person present at the time of the fire.

Whitty said he’s seen efforts to thaw frozen pipes cause too many fires over the years. 

“People take a torch and try to thaw a pipe — the worst thing you could possibly do, especially with these old houses,” he said. “All it takes is just one hot ember to get into one of these concealed spaces. It’s difficult to get at once they start.” 

The chief offered a better solution to the problem of frozen pipes.

Images: Photos from Tuesday’s Church Street fire, Jan. 22, 2019

“When pipes freeze, never [use] anything with an open flame [to thaw them],” he said. “If it’s in an enclosed area, if you can just get a fan to blow in room-temperature air, that will thaw the pipe out eventually. If not, possibly a hair dryer, something like that. No torches. Nothing with an open flame.”

The cold weather, in the single digits earlier in the morning, also caused problems with the Fire Department’s equipment. Whitty said a tower truck was in the shop for maintenance, so he sent a ladder truck and one water pumping engine truck. Eight city firefighters responded to the fire, and some others were brought in to help put it out.

Whitty said the ladder truck equipment froze during the firefighting effort.

“Not sure at this point whether the tip was froze or the waterway valve was froze, but something froze on it,” he said. 

He said he called in the Fort Johnson Volunteer Fire Department to help and used that company’s equipment to get a hose stream above the fire. He said he had two companies of firefighters inside the building attempting to put out the fire, but when the “smoke changed color” to a dark black with more pressure behind it, he pulled the crews out and started dousing the flames from a distance. 

He said one feature of the home also made it difficult to extinguish the fire — asphalt siding, which started to melt during the fire.

“It’s commonly referred to in the trade as ‘gasoline siding,’ because once it starts burning, it’s actually an accelerant,” he said. 

Approximately 16 firefighters helped put out the fire.  

Images: Photos from Tuesday’s Church Street fire, Jan. 22, 2019


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