CENTER CITY, Minn. (WCCO) — At a vacant house in Center City, firefighters hustle about to place mannequins and tiny cameras. What they’re setting up has all the realism of a Hollywood set.

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Their work is an effort to point out the hidden dangers of how we store gasoline and gas-powered equipment.
The house will be burned down in the sake of safety, by teaching firefighters and the rest of us some valuable lessons.

“We’re filling up that gas can, that one-gallon gas can with a quart of gas,” said St. Paul fire investigator, Jamie Novak.

Novak travels worldwide teaching firefighters about fire behavior.

He says we’ve become all too comfortable with gasoline as we fill up our vehicles and containers for lawnmowers and other power equipment.

The problem arises when gasoline is brought inside a dwelling to be stored.

“We’ve seen everything from motorcycles inside the house to snow blowers to lawnmowers,” Novak said.

Just a few weeks ago, a family in St. Paul learned that lesson the hard way. As they were bringing a gas-powered air compressor downstairs for winter storage, gasoline spilled onto the floor when the cap dislodged.

The vapors quickly ignited when a woman flicked on a cigarette lighter to look for the cap. She was badly burned but firefighters were able to extinguish the house fire without significant damage.

Novak says the family was extremely lucky.

“Keep [gasoline] out of the house, especially away from kids who might not realize what they’re tipping over or spilling. And then they could get seriously burned,” he said.

All it takes is a simple spark or pilot light from a water heater or furnace being ignited.

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To simulate such an event, Novak and his Center City firefighters deliberately tipped over a quart container of gas and waited for the water heater in the vacant house to ignite.

From more than 20 feet away, hidden cameras captured the moment of ignition. Flames rolled across the floor in the opposite direction, from the water heater back to the plastic container.

That’s why most cities ban storing gasoline inside a dwelling. Unfortunately, too many people ignore the dangers and do it anyway.

It’s not uncommon for people without a garage or outdoor storage shed to bring lawn equipment and other gas powered tools inside, without completely draining the fuel tank.

Novak has even seen cases where people store five gallon gasoline containers inside a home.

“That’s a huge amount of fuel burning spread throughout the house, that you just aren’t going to put it out,” Novak said.

But what we all have in our homes can also be explosive if stored too near a heat source.

Aerosol cans of house cleaners, spray paints and other chemicals are filled with butane or propane as a propellant. If that can is heated up it can explode with deadly force.

“I had a student get hit 50 feet away from an aerosol can that went through chicken wire,” Novak said. “It went 50 feet, whacked him on the side of the head.”

Whether a can of hair spray or household cleaners, aerosols will go off like rockets. In their second demonstration, firefighters will place a can next to a stovetop.

Within seconds, the blast rips down ceiling tiles, sending out a large fireball.

“I’m not saying that aerosols are dangerous,” Novak added. “It’s just that people need to be smart about where they store them.”

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He says it’s a simple lesson in fire safety, keeping gasoline out of the home and aerosols away from the heat.