A California mother whose teenage daughter was severely burned by a container of bio-fuel that lacked a flame arrester on its mouth has become one of the leading voices in the nation for burn injury awareness, safety, and legislation.
Margaret Priest Lewis described to MomZette the horrific event at her Sonoma, California, home in 2014 that forever changed the lives of her and her daughter.
In June of that year, Nicolette Lewis, 16, her twin sister Ally, and two friends were about to roast marshmallows and make s’mores in a portable, ventless bio-ethanol fireplace. Mrs. Priest told MomZette that they had purchased the special fireplace for safety reasons and also because they live in a “spare the air” region of California that restricts burning wood and other solid fuel sources.
“Unfortunately … the fire went out. And the girls had to refuel it. They thought the fire was out, but you can’t see underneath the top plate,” Ms. Priest told MomZette. “And when they went to refuel — which we’d all done many times before with these bottles of bio fuel that I’d bought — all of a sudden they experienced flame jetting. And the bottle of fluid burst into flames and sprayed all over Nicolette’s body. Suddenly she was engulfed in flames.”
Ms. Priest, who was mildly burned trying to extinguish the flames on her daughter, noted that bio fuel is made of ethanol, which is difficult to extinguish. She said she used the same fuel and fuel containers on several occasions, “never knowing it was a bomb of napalm. Simply tipping a bottle to pour the liquid fuel can ignite vapors into a flame thrower,” she told MomZette.
Nicolette was so severely burned on the front of her body from head to toe that she continues to undergo surgeries to repair and restore her skin after already undergoing dozens of excruciating skin grafts and other surgical procedures.
Now Ms. Priest hopes her efforts and those of other burn-injury-awareness advocates will spare others from intense physical and emotional pain that burn injuries cause, especially as sales of ventless fireplaces continue to climb.
Ms. Priest told MomZette that the accident was not caused by user error but by the lack of a simple, cheap safety device called a flame arrester on the bio-fuel container. Had the product come with such a safety guard, the accident could not have happened she said. The product also lacked a warning that such an accident could occur.
“It’s not operator error,” Ms. Lewis told MomZette. “A flame arrester completely prevents such an event from occurring. There’s no documented case that has ever been found when a functioning flame arrester is present.”
Ms. Priest now devotes much of her time to “consoling, advising, and educating others” while advocating for them, according to MomZette. She is a member of the American Burn Association and its national leadership conference and sits on a flame arrester committee. She also recently formed a ventless appliance committee pushing the industry for voluntary safety standrds.
At the same time, she is also pushing government officials for better mandatory regulation. She has spent time in Washington D.C. helping to get bipartisan legislation passed that would require manufacturers to put flame arresters on all liquid fuel containers.
In early February, Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) introduced the Portable Fuel Container Safety Act of 2017.
According to MomZette, 3,900 people are burned in accidents involving liquid fuels of all kinds. Of those, 450 people die from their injuries.