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Kerosene space heater sparks fire at St. Augustine apartments

Firefighters stress space heater safety as cold expected to continue

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A St. Augustine pastor told News4Jax that his mother barely escaped injury Monday afternoon when a space heater he had just refilled with kerosene exploded when he turned it on.

The fire damaged a six-unit apartment building on North McLaughlin Street that is run by Jesus Is a Way Maker Ministry. The units provide housing for those in need.

Andrew McGlocking, a pastor who runs the ministry, said he refueled a space heater with kerosene and it exploded as soon as he turned it on. He said he barely managed to get his elderly mother out of the apartment before the fire spread.

“I have a heater that we always turn off and let it cool off. After about an hour or two when I thought it was cool enough -- which it was -- I filled it back up with the kerosene, put the cap back on it and got ready to turn it on, and as soon as I turned it on, it exploded," McGlocking said. "It caught the house on fire so fast. My mother was in a wheelchair, and I did all I could to get her out of there.”

He said the wheelchair got stuck in a door crack and he had to push hard, almost flipping her out of the chair, to get her through the door as the fire came at them.

"We came very close," he said.

Firefighters had the fire out by 3:09 p.m., and damage was limited to the left interior of one unit, but power to the two-story building was cut, meaning the eight residents couldn't stay there.

McGlocking said he and the Red Cross are helping the eight residents find a place to live.

No one was injured in the fire.

Fire officials urge safety

Randy Wyse, president of the Jacksonville Fire Union, said Monday's fire is a reminder that space heaters that require fuel must be properly handled. 

“You want to make sure you do not fuel it in the house. If it does run out of fuel, take it outside, let it cool down. Then bring it back in and restart it,” Wyse said. “The worst thing you can do is put kerosene in a hot heater. It may splash over and get into a flammable area. Then you have a serious fire on your hands.”

Wyse also advises using the proper fuel.
 
“I’ve been to several incidents where people have a kerosene heater, (and they say,) 'Oh, there’s a tank there. That's it.' Fuel tank, fill it up and it’s gasoline (not kerosene). And now you have a major explosion. You want to make sure you have the proper fuel for whatever heater you're using, and make sure it's used properly. ”

With cold temperatures expected to last through the week, many people without central heating could find themselves relying on space heaters.

Holly Hurt is one of those getting creative with her home heating. 

She recently moved into a rental home built in the 1940s that doesn’t have central heating, so she’s forced to improvise to stay warm. 

She uses an electric fireplace -- essentially a fancy space heater -- to keep her living room warm, but it doesn’t crank out enough heat so she keeps the doors to every other room in the house closed. 

“I’ve kind of quartered off the house,” Hurt said. 

She uses three different space heaters to stay warm, including one in her bedroom, but recently she noticed it caused the extension cord to burn.

“Yesterday, it got really hot, so I unplugged it, and I didn’t realize it had actually burned through it,” Hurt said. “This scared me. I know what this could have done.”

She said the home is in need of an electrical upgrade.

“The bathroom totally feels like outside. It’s cold,” she said. “This right here plugs into the space heater in the bathroom so when I get up in the morning, put the heat on in the bathroom, wait a few minutes until it’s comfortable.”

The entrance to her kitchen is covered by a sheet to keep cold air from seeping into the living room. 

“I’ve used the stove a couple of times. Open up the oven and use the oven for heat,” Hurt said. “I know it’s a dangerous situation, but when it’s cold … You got to do what you have to do to stay warm.”

Hurt also wears layers indoors. 

“I’m wearing two pairs of socks, tights under my jeans, T-shirts, sweatshirts and this snow headband,” she said. 

Hurt's situation isn’t unique. Many people without central heating have to be strategic to keep warm. 

Whether heaters are powered by electricity or liquid fuel, the same rule applies when it comes to preventing fires, Wyse said.

“The most important thing is to keep any flammables away from the space heater,” Wyse said. “That’s any sheets, blankets or anything like that.”

Alternatives to space heaters while you sleep include an electric blanket and wearing an extra layer of clothing.


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