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Tenants displaced by fire irked at neighbors

Officials say pair hoarded gasoline to avoid cost hikes

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jonnelle Marte
Globe Correspondent / June 7, 2008

DARTMOUTH - A couple hoarding gasoline in a closet to avoid rising prices burned deeper holes in their wallets this week, officials said, when gas fumes ignited a fire that ruined their apartment and displaced 15 people in their building.

Neighbors like Karen Pacheco, whose apartment was damaged by water and smoke, were scrambling to find temporary homes yesterday.

"We're staying at a hotel for now," Pacheco said as she moved her belongings out of her smoke-stained apartment. "I'm kind of homeless."

"We don't like the high prices, but that's no way to store gasoline," said Maria Rego, a resident of Ledgewood Commons. "They're endangering the whole community. It's foolish."

The couple, whose names have not been released, illegally stored about 45 gallons of gas in nine water jugs - the kind used for water coolers - in a utility closet in their Ledgewood Commons apartment.

The blaze started about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, after the gas fumes were ignited by either a natural gas water heater or a propane-fueled cooking appliance, authorities said. There were no serious injuries, but the man who lived in the second-floor unit where the fire started sprained his ankle after jumping from his balcony.

The fire nearly gutted the apartment but was contained by a sprinkler system.

"Firefighters believed that if the sprinklers had not been there the building would have been burned down," said Jennifer Mieth, a spokeswoman for the state fire marshal's office.

The other seven units in the building sustained substantial water and smoke damage, making them unsafe for living until the damage is cleaned up. Pacheco, whose two teenagers were home when the fire broke out, said she was told it may be a few months before she can move back in.

"My things got spared, thank God," she said. "I just can't live here for a while."

Firefighters doused the flames in minutes, according to Dartmouth's Distict 3 Fire Chief Richard Arruda. He said the outcome would have been "catastrophic" if the gas vapors had exploded, and he warned people against storing gas in their homes.

"We'd rather you not store gasoline in any residential structures," Arruda said.

State law limits the amount of gasoline that can be stored in a home, including attached garages, to one quart, Mieth said.

Up to a gallon of gasoline can be kept in a shed or unattached garage that is at least 50 feet away from the home, she said, and all gas must be kept in approved containers.

Mieth said the Dartmouth couple clearly violated the storage laws, but it was not yet known if they will be charged. She expected an investigation to be completed early next week.

The building was cordoned off with yellow police tape yesterday, and several people appeared to be hauling their belongings into moving trucks.

Jonnelle Marte can be reached at jmarte@globe.com.

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