11 September 2019

Wheat bag warning following Sunshine Bay fire death

| Elka Wood
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Warnings about how to use heat packs safely are being issued by NSW Fire and Rescue. Photo: South Coast Police District Facebook.

Warnings about how to use heat packs safely are being issued by NSW Fire and Rescue. Photo: South Coast Police District Facebook.

A house fire near Batemans Bay last weekend (August 18) which claimed the life of an elderly man was caused by a wheat bag which combusted in the man’s bed.

Wheat bags, which are heated in a microwave to provide pain relief and warmth, are commonly homemade but following a 2017 coroners report into the death of a Sydney woman in 2013, the potential risks are starting to be wider known.

Speaking with Region Media, Inspector Robert Jansen of Fire and Rescue NSW says that since 2013, it has been recommended that the packs come with a warning label and are only sourced through a commercial supplier and comply with Australian Standards.

The most recent death of the 90-year-old man at Sunshine Bay has prompted emergency services to renew their safety advice around wheat bags.

Police and firefighters responded to the Triple O (000) call just before 8 pm on Sunday night (August 18).

When they arrived at the Bronte Crescent home, police say, “officers found a man inside the home suffering smoke inhalation and burns after the mattress he was sleeping on had caught alight.”

“The man was treated at the scene before being taken to Bateman’s Bay Hospital where he was listed as critical.

“Sadly, he was unable to recover from his injuries and died.”

Although the numbers of call-outs and fatalities related to wheat bag fires are small, the repercussions are so serious, especially in cases of elderly or very young people, that Fire and Rescue NSW now include wheat bags as part of their standard winter warning to homeowners.

Inspector Jansen explains the wheat bags spontaneously combust, “which happens when a chemical reaction inside the wheat causes more heat.”

The biggest risk comes when heat packs are overheated in the microwave and then covered by bedclothes or anything else that traps and contains the heat, he explains.

“If you are awake and on the lounge where you can monitor how hot the pack is getting, there’s no issue, it’s when there is nowhere for the heat to dissipate that there is the potential for the pack to burst into flames.”

Even after you’ve used the pack and it’s cooled down, don’t throw it under a pile of paper in the cupboard, Inspector Jansen advises, “store it somewhere with good airflow so it can cool down completely.”

A report on the Sunshine Bay man’s death is being prepared by officers from South Coast Police District for the Coroner.

For more information, visit NSW Fire and Rescue.

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