Oxygen-Using Pipe Smoker’s Beard Ignites

NEW MARTINSVILLE – An elderly man’s beard burst into flames when he attempted to light a tobacco pipe despite his reliance on highly flammable medical oxygen to help him breathe.

He suffered severe burns to his face, neck and possibly his respiratory tract, and he remained in critical condition Friday at the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh, according to New Martinsville Fire Chief Larry Couch.

Couch said the 76-year-old man, whom he declined to identify, injured himself in a similar manner less than a year ago.

Firefighters responded to 410 Maple Ave., Apt. 2, just before 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and found the man in the kitchen, still smoking from the explosion. Two additional fire engines were diverted from another emergency in the Proctor area, Couch said.

The man’s thick hair and heavy beard helped trap extra oxygen, increasing the already significant potential for combustion, according to Couch.

Crews remained on scene for about 30 minutes to clear the apartment of smoke and ensure the building did not ignite. A Middlebourne ambulance transported the burned man to Wetzel County Hospital, where a medical helicopter picked him up and flew him to Pittsburgh.

Couch said warnings against smoking near concentrated sources of oxygen are in place for a very good reason.

“We have had at least four similar events in the past four years. … All the material and oxygen needs is an ignition source such as an open flame or a static spark and you have an instantaneous fire,” he said.