5 On Your Side

Trendy outdoor firepots can turn dangerous

Posted June 22, 2011 2:29 p.m. EDT
Updated June 22, 2011 7:15 p.m. EDT

— A bomb in a bottle. That’s how some describe the fuel for ceramic outdoor firepots.

The hot patio accessories are the center of a 5 On Your Side investigation and are now the target of a massive recall by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

The trendy firepots are the hot, new, trendy outdoor accessory. They light up yards and keep away bugs.

"It's a beautiful thing when it works right, but if it doesn't work right, it's like a napalm grenade,” said Scott Colquhoun. “We're lucky we didn't burn the house down.”

Colquhoun was using one of the pots on the deck of his Carolina Beach home last month.

When he tried to refill the pot with a gallon-sized bottle of fuel gel, he said he saw the flame “leap into the bottle and that’s when the bottle exploded out of my hand.”

His shirt caught fire, and he hit the deck.

“I rolled and I rolled, and I still couldn’t put the fire out” he said.

So he ran downstairs and jumped into his pond.

Skin was falling off Dr. Colquhoun's body. He ended up in the North Carolina Jaycee Burn Center in Chapel Hill with burns to his stomach, thighs, hand and wrist. The burns were so severe, he had to have skin grafts.

He was embarrassed, until he found out it's happened to others.

Nancy Reyer’s 14-year-old son, Michael Hubbard, was helping to prepare for a wedding reception in New York when the fuel gel he poured into a ceramic pot exploded into a fireball.

Reyer called the product a “bomb in a bottle.”

So far, our 5 On Your Side investigation tracked at least 19 reports of problems with gel firepots in a little more than a year.

Some examples: Four members of a Nebraska family were burned when the plastic fuel bottle "exploded like a flamethrower."

A Kansas City area woman said she was "flaming" for two to three minutes when someone refilled a pot.

While other companies make similar products, many of those involved are by Atlanta-based Napa Home & Garden. Last week, Napa put what it called a "precautionary hold on sales" while it looks into the injuries.

But owner Jerry Cunningham said the product is safe when used correctly. The package directions say: "Do not add fuel when lit, and never pour fuel onto an open flame or hot surface."

Yet, a South Carolina woman said she was "suddenly on fire" when the pot was lit for the first time that night. And, in another incident, a man said that when he tried to put out the firepot with the flame snuffer provided, "the flaming gel erupted volcano-style."

Colquohoun said that while it seems so harmless, he now knows better and will never use the gel fuel again.

“It was sticky, hot and refused to go out. It was absolutely terrifying for everybody there," he said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, the CPSC took action. The agency announced a recall of 460,000 bottles and jugs of gel fuel distributed by Napa Home & Garden. The company now says it is aware of 23 burn injuries.