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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Take precautions to reduce fire risk once power is restored

As investigators check whether a fire that destroyed Lee Elementary School can be traced to power restoration there, people still in the dark might be wondering about the potential risks to their own homes.

There are some, experts say, and some easy ways to minimize them.

"It just takes a few seconds to do these things but it could be the difference between saving your home and losing it," said Ralph Fehr, an electrical engineering professor at the University of South Florida's College of Engineering. "It would be a shame if your home did fine in the wind and water but burned down because of an electrical issue."

RELATED: Power restored to 2.8 million Florida homes, businesses since Monday

Flames tore through Lee Elementary on Tuesday evening, causing the roof to collapse on the 111-year-old building. Officials say the structure is likely a total loss.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation Wednesday, but fire officials said they were working to determine whether the blaze might have been sparked when power was restored to the building. Residents in the neighborhood reported power had begun to come on in their homes just before they saw flames. Cherie Jacobs, a spokeswoman for Tampa Electric Co., said the company's equipment does not appear to be involved in the school fire.

One way a fire could start when power is restored after a storm is when electrical wiring get wets from water intrusion, Fehr said.

"That could lead to a short circuit that could start a fire," Fehr said.

RELATED: Flames consume Robert E. Lee Elementary in Tampa Heights (w/video)

Any heat-generating appliances, like a stove, hair dryer, iron, that were turned on at the time the power went out will turn on again when the power comes on and create a fire hazard if they're unattended.

The solution to these potential problems is simple: Turn off the main breaker in the house when no one is home. When power is restored, switch on the breaker and remain in the home, listening for unusual sights and odors that could indicate an electrical problem. If something looks, sounds or smells suspicious, switch off the main breaker.

"You certainly want to be very, very vigilant," Fehr said.

There are potential risks outside the home, too.

The line from the utility pole into the building often runs overhead, making it vulnerable to damage from wind and debris.

The utility company is responsible for making sure the line is undamaged, but utility lineman can't always get onto your property to do a complete inspection. What's more, the sheer volume of homes during a mass outage means problems can be missed.

"Go outside and examine those wires," said Nick Marra, co-owner of CJS Electric Inc. in Tampa. "Make sure nothing looks broken or exposed."

The St. Petersburg Police Department sent out this safety warning on Wednesday: It's dangerous for people to use pigtail dryer power cords to hook up generators to their electric panels to power up their homes. That could "energize the lines back to the main transformer and downed lines and electrocute the power workers," police said. It could also destroy the generator.

If you spot something suspicious, call the power company. And when the power comes back on, remember that potential damage to that outside line is a reason to monitor your home for signs of fire.

One of Marra's service calls during a previous storm illustrates the potential danger.

Winds from the storm knocked a tree onto a homeowner's line, breaking it at a point inside the house, Marra recalled.

"It just shorted out," she said, "and caught the house on fire inside the attic."

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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