By Tom Kiurski
Gasoline can be more dangerous than dynamite, because the vapors given off by gasoline are explosive and invisible. Although high temperatures might not set off dynamite, gasoline vapors are easily ignited, even at lower temperatures. Gasoline vapors are heavier than air, allowing them to travel close to the ground, where they can easily come in contact with ignition sources such as pilot lights, electric motor sparks, and switches. Gasoline vapors spread invisibly away from the source in the way a fluid does when it is spilled. The vapors are always seeking the lowest point because of their weight. Sparks and open flame can ignite gasoline vapors over a long distance.
Gasoline is also very prevalent as a staple in the garage for fueling gasoline engines. Most garages have quite a few items that run on gasoline. By law, gasoline must be stored in safety containers with warning labels. How many times have we seen gasoline being dispensed and transported in aluminum cans, glass bottles, or plastic milk jugs? Anyone using gasoline in any amounts should have a fire extinguisher nearby. Although the fire service always recommends the “ABC” type of fire extinguisher, gasoline is a Class B fuel. A garage is an excellent place to install a fire extinguisher, and make sure your citizens know how to use it–there isn’t time to learn after a fire breaks out. This can be a good time to also review fire extinguisher basics with the group to whom you are speaking.
Gasoline is very dangerous because of its flammability and availability. It should never be stored in basements or any other living area of the home. I am sure a few of you have been to fires inside homes that have started with gasoline. I recall a fire in a basement that started when a motorcycle was put there for winter storage. Also, gasoline should be stored only in approved safety containers. Remind residents not to use gasoline to start barbecues or outdoor fire pits and never to smoke when working with gasoline.
If members of your group have small children, they should store gasoline up and out of the reach of children. Two good storage locations are on a high shelf in the garage or inside a locked cabinet. As children get older, adults should explain the uses of gasoline as well as the dangers. Any gasoline spills should be cleaned up immediately, and no ignition sources should be allowed anywhere near the spill.
Fueling of gas-burning engines should be done in a well-ventilated area. Encourage your group to roll the lawn mower outside the garage before fueling. If gasoline needs to be added to the mower during cutting, the engine should be shut off and allowed to cool down first. A hot engine can act as an ignition source for the flammable vapors. I remember going on a few of these fires as well.
Gasoline is useful for citizens as they do their normal routines on the outside of their homes, but it has some very dangerous properties. Make sure your citizens use good common sense around gasoline.
Tom Kiurski is a lieutenant, a paramedic, and the director of fire safety education for Livonia (MI) Fire & Rescue. His book, Creating a Fire-Safe Community: A Guide for Fire Safety Educators (Fire Engineering, 1999), is a guide for bringing the safety message to all segments of the community efficiently and economically.