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Mont. FD issues warning about home oxygen and smoking after fatal fires

The Billings Fire Prevention Bureau experienced two fatal fires involving nasal cannulas and oxygen

By Amy Nile
Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. — After two deaths from fires involving home oxygen in recent weeks, the Billings Fire Prevention Bureau is warning of the danger of having a lit cigarette or an open flame nearby when medical oxygen is being used.

“People can do this all their life and it never happens. But once it does, it’s catastrophic,” Deputy Fire Marshal Andrew McLain said in a news release. While “these fires are rare, we did have two in the last month.”

A Billings resident died after a lit cigarette near an oxygen tank caused a fire on March 15. Another resident was fatally injured when a nasal tube that was providing oxygen ignited on April 2.

A fire needs fuel, oxygen and a heat source to burn, McLain explained.

“With nasal cannulas, you have 100% oxygen flowing through that tube. So you have the oxygen there, the tube is the fuel and the heat source is either the lighter or the cigarette,” he said. “Once those things combine, you have a fast, hot fire.”

The bureau recently demonstrated the power of nasal cannula fires during a training for Billings firefighters. Once the tube ignites, the flame moves quickly and can even continue burning underwater.

Those who use oxygen need to make sure there are no lit cigarettes, lighters or other heat sources nearby when their oxygen is on, McLain said.

“The safest way to smoke with a nasal cannula is to turn the oxygen off,” he said.

Although some people take the tube off their nose and put it on their lap, if oxygen is still flowing, it’ll saturate clothes. A cigarette can then cause the clothing or the nasal tube to ignite, McLain said.

Home medical oxygen use was involved in an average of 1,041 burns a year from 2017 to 2021, according to emergency room data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

During that time, fire departments across the country responded to about 228 house fires caused by home oxygen equipment every year, data from the U.S. Fire Administration shows. About 96 people died in those fires each year.

For more information, visit the National Fire Protection Association’s website.

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