May 23, 2018
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Why a Thomaston fire never should have happened

By Betty N. Thomas, Special to the BDN

My job as an American Red Cross Disaster Services program worker is to provide food, shelter and comfort to victims of disasters. But a recent, preventable fire led me to go one step further.

On Sept. 20, there was a mobile home fire in Thomaston. I did not get a call to respond until Sept. 26. This fire was caused by heat tape placed under the mobile home to prevent freezing pipes. It was installed by a licensed electrician. The home was occupied by three children ages 10 and 12 — two of them being twins — and a single mother.

The mother tried to find assistance from every agency in the area. She made less than $25,000 a year, working seven days a week to put food on her table. She could not find any assistance, however, because she made too much money to qualify. The plumbing needed repairing, the main drains and water supply were burned, and damage was done to the underside of the mobile home. The electricity had been shut off due to the fire, so all their food spoiled.

Normally, after providing food assistance, shelter and comfort my job is completed. However, due to difficulties this family was living with — no plumbing and smoke damage to the interior — I decided to assist them. I contacted Ken Rolfe, assistant manager at Home Depot, and asked if the store could donate some building supplies. He immediately donated supplies to get the plumbing fixed and said he would continue to assist.

I applaud the store for its generosity and willingness to assist a family in a time of need.

One of the most important aspects of this event is that this fire should never have happened. That is the real tragedy of the story. I was a general contractor, building numerous houses in the state of Washington, which has one of the strictest building codes in the nation. While interviewing the client, I happened to see the heat tape that caught fire but also noted the outlet it was plugged into. It was not a GFCI — a ground fault circuit interrupter that reduces the risk of electrical shock and fires — but rather a regular outlet.

Water and condensation are always a problem for mobile homes. Without a GFCI outlet, there was nothing to stop water from hitting the electrical wiring, thereby causing a fire. Remember, I said a licensed electrician had installed the fire tape. For $12.58, this tragedy could have been prevented. If this fire had happened during the night, the mobile home and possibly the people in it would have burned. Very possibly it could have taken the neighbor’s mobile home also.

Please, if you value your family and neighbors, make sure that if you own a mobile home your heat tape is connected properly and also has a GFCI outlet.

Betty N. Thomas of Spruce Head is state disaster instructor specialty trainer for the American Red Cross. Those who wish to volunteer with the Pine Tree Chapter may call 941-2903.

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