June 17, 2021

Burn patient shares his story, expert weighs in to help prevent injuries

Madison, Wis. — Scott Travis has experienced pain more than once.

At age 9, Travis was attending the UW-Platteville homecoming parade when a friend threw a firecracker that landed on one of the floats parked nearby. To keep from getting in trouble, Travis climbed on to the float to put the fire out. He received third-degree burns on about 60% of his body.

In June 2019, Travis, then 65, was forced to relive this tragedy while attempting to burn brush on his rural property outside of Platteville. This time the flames were caused by an accelerant — gasoline.

“It happens fast. You can think things are going well, and all of a sudden, they’re not,” he said. “There aren’t too many people who had this happen to them twice.”

Travis had experience with controlled burns — and even administered safety protocols for employees earlier in his career — but even for someone experienced, accelerants can be extremely dangerous. In Travis’s incident, gasoline had inadvertently been added to a five-gallon container that already contained diesel fuel, he said.

“I had no idea gasoline had been added to the old diesel fuel,” Travis said.

He put the liquid he thought was just diesel fuel on the brush pile, and tried to light the apparatus often used for controlling prescribed burns of brush. When his lighter wouldn’t light, he walked about 40 feet from the brush pile to get a book of matches. By that time, the vapor from the gasoline had spread as far from the brush pile as he was standing.

He struck the match and was again surrounded by flame. The gas ignited and severely burned Travis’s hands, arm and fingers, he said. He was just days from a scientific expedition to Mongolia.

“I said to myself, 'You aren’t going to Mongolia, you have to get to the hospital,' " Travis said.

Travis drove to the local emergency room. He was then transported to UW Health’s Burn and Wound Center at University Hospital and spent 12 days there recovering from his burns.

Incidents like this can be prevented if people know how to manage fires and properly store accelerants like gasoline, according to Dr. Angela Gibson, assistant professor of surgery, and medical director, UW Health Wound Healing Services.

Each year, Gibson sees many patients who have had similar unfortunate and life-altering experiences.

“Patients always say they didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” she said. “Many burns from accelerants are preventable by proper storage, but the most important thing we can tell people is to simply never put them on fires — period.”

Gibson has a few important tips for being safe around fire this summer, whether it’s a Father’s Day cookout, backyard campfire or burning brush or leaves:

  • Never burn with gasoline, diesel or kerosene as they can have the same explosive power as dynamite

  • Only burn dry materials

  • Prior to fire ignition, remove any contents that could lead to explosion, like paint, aerosol cans or fireworks

  • Outdoor fires must be away from buildings, fences, overhead wires and trees

  • Do not light fires on windy days

  • Check burn bans with your local fire department

  • Keep children and pets away

  • If you are physically unable to move away from a planned fire, reconsider burning or appoint someone who is more physically fit to complete the job

  • Have a bucket of water or garden hose at the ready

  • Put the fire completely out before leaving it, and never leave a fire unattended