OREGON CITY, Ore. (KOIN) — Firefighters have seen people using everything from barbecues to generators to stay warm during power outages in Clackamas County but the gas these devices produce can be a silent killer.
Clackamas Fire has seen an uptick in calls about carbon monoxide and four people died from carbon monoxide poisoning in the county over the weekend.
“Over the last week with the cold weather we’ve had and the power outages it’s a deadly combination because so many people are without power and so many people are trying to stay warm that they are looking for any way possible to generate heat,” said Lt. Micah Shelton with Clackamas Fire.
Shelton said people should keep portable generators outside and point them so they blow fumes away from buildings. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping generators more than 20 feet from homes, doors and windows.
The Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office also advises people to avoid using alternate heat sources that produce CO such as camp stoves in enclosed areas.
“Generators are one aspect of it, it’s a gas-powered engine so it’s going to have exhaust just like your car would have exhaust,” said Shelton. “Like anything else, you don’t want to run those motors in a confined structure because those fumes need to ventilate properly.”
Carbon monoxide is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas. When too much builds in the air, the human body replaces the oxygen in red blood cells with carbon monoxide. Dangerous levels can lead to carbon monoxide poisoning which can cause flu-like symptoms, headaches and nausea.
Experts say every home should be equipped with carbon monoxide detectors to safeguard against CO poisoning, which can be fatal.
“Have a CO detector outside every sleeping space,” Shelton advised, “you can get combination detectors that are smoke detectors and CO detectors, those are great. You can get ones that plugin and have a battery backup and if there is a power outage, you will be alerted if there is CO in the air.”
Tyler Fryman is an electrician in Canby who has been helping multiple people hook up their generators for free because wiring one incorrectly could have dangerous consequences for residents and power repair crews. By Thursday afternoon, Portland General Electric was reporting about 40,000 customers were still without power.
“If you don’t turn your main circuit off you have two separate power sources coming together,” said Fryman. “When power does come back on, it’s a direct short. It’s not good.”
Fryman said this is a temporary way to wire a generator and the main power should not be switched back on. He said he’s helped hook up over 30 generators so far.
“A lot of people give tips, a couple people cry, thanking me over and over. I still get messages thanking me. Some houses, it was as cold as 46 — 42 is the coldest I’ve seen,” he said.
Fryman advised keeping generators out of garages because the fumes could still be sucked into the house. He said anyone with questions about their generators should call an electrician for help.