Plumbers’ torches ignite condo fires

A condominium at 1149 Rockland Ave. is uninhabitable after a plumber's torch ignited insulation behind a pipe.

Two condominium fires were caused by plumbers' torches.

Two condominium fires were caused by plumbers' torches.

Shooting flames into tight spaces often surrounded by dry wood is a reality for plumbers – and a dangerous one.

Last week, two condominium fires were caused by plumbers’ torches, the Victoria Fire Department said – the first on Jan. 17 at 1149 Rockland Ave., the second on Jan. 20 at 620 Toronto St.

Torches are used by plumbers to solder copper piping during repairs and renovations, said Rod Lidstone, chair of Camosun College’s plumbing and pipe trades department.

“When they’re heating this copper up to quite a high temperature, one of your biggest hazards is this piping you’re installing is in a wooden building … and it’s very often in the walls or where holes have been drilled through studs or flooring, and you have to do soldering where there are changes in direction in the piping,” Lidstone said.

“You’ve got piping in there and have to do this work with a high-temperature torch in this wall, and there’s obviously hazards associated with that.”

Students at Camosun’s Interurban campus plumbing shop practise soldering in their first year. Marks are deducted if burn marks are visible on the wooden mock-frame around the pipes, Lidstone said.

He said plumbers need to carefully check any charred wood for embers, and quickly extinguish embers with a damp cloth. During renovations, wood dust that forms can ignite quickly, he added. Plumbers can protect their workspace with metal plates or a flame-resistant gel spray.

Any plumber who’s been in the business for a few years has seen charred wood caused by a plumber’s torch, Lidstone said.

“It’s very, very common – it’s the nature of the trade,” he said. But rarely does it lead to destructive structure fires.

The condo at 1149 Rockland Ave. is uninhabitable after a plumber’s torch ignited insulation behind a pipe. The heat followed the pipes through the walls, causing massive damage. The residents are staying with family or friends, or in hotels.

It was insulation that caught fire at the Toronto Street condo, when plumbers were working during a renovation. All residents of the 16-floor building were evacuated initially, and allowed back inside within an hour. Damage was limited.