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Ethanol-fueled fire pits can be deadly, Health Canada warns

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Ethanol-fueled appliances have increased in popularity over the years. They can add warmth or ambiance without the trouble and expense of digging a traditional fire pit. But recent fatalities and serious injuries have prompted Ontario’s Fire Marshal and Health Canada to issue safety warnings about the risks of ethanol-fueled appliances.

The injuries are caused by “flame jetting”. The fuel, ethanol, emits an invisible but highly flammable vapour. If the vapour is near a flame, or an appliance that has not fully extinguished, it can easily ignite, resulting in a terrifying and dangerous ball of fire. In certain circumstances, when fuel from a pressurized fuel canister ignites, it can shoot fire like a flame thrower. Because the vapour is invisible, it is easy for flames to engulf a large area in an instant.

The problem isn’t new:

  • In 2016, a Peterborough dentist died after suffering burns to most of her body. Four other people were injured in the same accident.
  • That same year, a Whitby man suffered third-degree burns, requiring two weeks in intensive care after his wife poured ethanol into their tabletop fireplace. He described the accident to CTV News: “She is still trying to light it and I see this ball of fire spinning above it and it had a tail.”
  • In late August of this year, an ethanol fire pot left a Scarborough woman with catastrophic injuries. In an interview with Barrie Today, the victim’s friend described it: “You really have no hope if you’re sitting in the line of that flame… It’s invisible at first, and it just takes off, it just shoots out, you’ve got no protection at all.”

Other countries, including Australia, have clamped down on the products, but they remain available for purchase in Canada. CBC News reports that Health Canada has warned the Retail Council of Canada and the companies who manufacture or import the fire pits that “if prohibited products are found on the market, immediately enforcement action will be taken to remove them.”

If you already own an ethanol fire pit, the safest thing to do is probably to get rid of it. But if you continue to use it, take care. The Ontario Fire Marshal’s office and Health Canada recommend the following:

  1. Never pour fuel over a flame or refuel a warm fire pit. Before refueling, leave the pit extinguished for at least 30 minutes and until it is cold to the touch.
  2. Never refuel near people or in closed spaces.
  3. Make sure that the fuel container you purchase has a flame arrestor. This is a small mesh insert that reduces the risk that the flame will travel into the container.
  4. Keep firepots on a level surface, and at a distance from people and anything that may catch fire.