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by Terri Hogan
Senior Staff Writer
From the window of her home, Williamsburg Village resident Ruth Spaid saw the lightning that struck her house and felt the house shake.
“I then started to smell smoke,” she said. “I tried to wake my husband, who was asleep, and the smoke was getting worse. It started coming out of the wall switches.”
She said her husband went downstairs and saw that their laundry room was “just a ball of fire.”
The house sustained significant damage when lightning struck on July 22.
Ruth Spaid, her husband Gerald, her elderly mother-in-law and two dogs were able to get out safely.
The Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department (SSVFD) was dispatched at 10:16 p.m. to the 3900 block of Queen Mary Drive.
“The reported cause was a lightning strike,” Sandy Spring Chief Mike Kelley said.
He said the first units to arrive on the scene, from Station 40 on Georgia Avenue, found smoke visible from the house. The heaviest fire was in the utility room on the lower level of the split-level house, though the fire extended to the upper levels, he added.
The bulk of the fire was reported under control at 10:42 p.m.
In addition to units from both Sandy Spring stations, assistance was provided from Laytonsville, Gaithersburg, Rockville, Aspen Hill, Glenmont and Hillandale. About 75 firefighters were on the scene.
One firefighter sustained non-life threatening injuries.
“The fire department was great,” Spaid said. “I grabbed my purse, my dogs and their leashes and ran outside. The fire department was there within a minute. We really appreciate all that they have done.”
Kelley said the damage to the house was estimated at $275,000, which includes approximately $200,000 to the structure and about $75,000 to its contents.
Spaid said she and her husband are waiting on an estimate from a public adjuster.
“I think it will be at least a year before we can return to our house,” Spaid said. “Two-thirds of it was damaged — the floors are warped, some of the walls are gone, and it is full of mold since all it has done since then is rain. We have gone into the house and it is really bad.”
She said her family spent the night of the fire with a family member who lives nearby. After staying at an extended-stay hotel, they recently moved into a house in Derwood.
“We are trying to get the new place to feel like home,” she said.
On top of dealing with the insurance company and adjusters, Spaid is still dealing with the emotional aspect. Photos and many family heirlooms, including antique furniture and handmade needlework items, were lost.
Her mother-in-law lost everything due to the proximity of her bedroom to the fire’s origin.
“We’ve had a lot of kind people offering to help by giving us things,” Spaid said. “We are still waiting to see what, if anything, is salvageable.
“It’s been really hard. We have lived there for 29 years and raised our children in that house,” she added. “It was lightning — it just happened.”
Staying safe during summer’s stormy weather
On July 23, a Howard County firefighter died from injuries sustained while battling a seven-alarm house fire in Clarksville that reportedly started by a lightning strike.
Kelley does not believe the frequency of lightning strikes is increasing.
“We tend to see one or two homes struck during each major thunderstorm,” he said. “Some, of course, are worse than others.”
He said that as far as prevention is concerned, nothing can be done to prevent a direct lightning strike, but damage can be minimized with surge protectors, either outside the home and/or inside with a surge protector installed at the breaker box or standard electrical surge protectors at the plug outlets.
“The best way to prevent damage to electronic equipment however is to unplug the devices when a storm approaches,” he said.
SSVFD Capt. Brendan Bonita added that advice does not apply to appliances.
“Appliances, like a coffee maker or toaster, should be plugged in to the wall outlet without an extension cord or any type of power splitter,” he said. “They should be unplugged when not in use. This does a few things — prevents fires, stops the risk of damage from a power surge and saves electricity.”
Bonita added that surge protectors are beneficial for protecting sensitive electronics such as TV’s, computers, cell phones, tablets and more.
“They should be UL or ETL listed, have an appropriate surge protection rating and have a protection status indicator light. If the light is off, the surge protector is no longer good and needs to be replaced,” he said. “Surge protectors should not be overloaded, as that is a significant fire hazard.”
Outside safeguards include professionally installed lightning rods, which allow a safe path for the lightning to travel to the ground.
“Trees which are close to a house or taller than the house and have overhanging branches can also provide a direct path for lightning to jump or side-flash to a house,” Kelley said. “And yes, lightning rods can also be installed in trees. Aside from protecting the house itself, lightning striking trees can easily kill the tree, which can be expensive down the road requiring removal or causing damage by falling.”
Kelley said that while some home insurance companies offer lightning protection, that will not prevent damage, only assist with repairs.
“And remember, if a home is struck and causes damage or fire, a working smoke detector is mandatory and automatic fire suppression or sprinkler systems can effectively limit the fire damage,” he said.
For additional information on lightning strikes, Kelley recommends https://Lightning.org and www.nfpa.org/News-and-Research/Fire-statistics-and-reports/Fire-statistics/Fire-causes/Lightning-Fires-and-Lightning-Strikes.
For more information on fire safety, visit https://www.ssvfd.org/fire-safety-tips/.
To assist the Spaid family in replacing clothing and household items lost in the fire, go to www.gofundme.com/clothing-and-household-help.
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