Electrical malfunction from Christmas lights sparks fire with major damage in Seminole Heights

Neighbors rally to help families hurt by fire

TAMPA — An electrical malfunction from Christmas lights was determined to be the cause of a residential fire that severely damaged a home in Seminole Heights. Now, a community is stepping up to help the family who lost everything they owned.

Tampa Fire Rescue responded to the house on the 300 Block of Crest Ave. at 2:46 a.m. Thursday.

When crews arrived they found heavy smoke and flames coming from the east side of the single-story wood frame residence.

Firefighters began to attack the fire which had already spread to a van in the driveway of a neighbor's home. The exposure also affected the outside of the neighboring home.

Pete Elgers and Julie Undella, the homeowners, were sleeping and were warned of the fire by smoke detectors in the house. They were both taken to a local hospital with minor injuries, including smoke inhalation.

The fire was under control by 4:00 a.m.

Friends say Pete and Julie are the kind of people who are there for others.

"Anytime anybody needs something, she's there," said Paul Medrano, a family friend, about Julie. "You can count on Pete for anything and everything in the community."

The South Seminole Heights Civic Association stepped in within hours as neighbors rallied to help the family get back on their feet.

"All of Seminole Heights has been through some challenges lately, so we know we need to come together as a neighborhood," said Stephen Lytle, president of the South Seminole Heights Civic Association. "And we're going to do that again for these neighbors who in the new year are going through something that's going to be pretty hard times for them."

 

To donate, neighbors can PayPal the South Seminole Heights Civic Association at info@sshca.org or send a check made out to the South Seminole Heights Civic Association (SSHCA) at P.O. Box 360371, Tampa, FL 33673.

All donations will be tax deductible as the SSHCA is a registered 501(c)3. Any questions can be sent to at info@sshca.org

"We need to stick together because who knows, it could be me today or tomorrow. So we have to try and help one another," said Cynthia Hunter, a neighbor who plans to donate to help the family.

Medrano says he is grateful people are stepping up to help, but not at all surprised.

"They just happen to be the people that are in need today," he said. "But if something happens tomorrow, this community is going to be there for them as well."

According to the Fire Marshal's office, the fire started on the front porch of the home and extended into the attic. Major fire damage caused a partial collapse of the structure.

Damage to the home and its contents is estimated at $170,000; a total loss. Damage to the neighbor's handicap-accessible van is estimated at $6,000.

Officials say the cause of the fire was due to an electrical malfunction, as multiple electrical cords plugged into an outlet were providing power to several Christmas lights and decorations on the house and in the front yard.

According to the Electrical Safety Foundation International (ESFI), 25 percent of holiday fires are caused by decorations.

When installing outdoor electrical decorations ESFI recommends the following:

  • Make sure all extension cords and electrical decorations used for outdoor  decorating are marked for outdoor use.
  • Match power needs (amperage) of electrical products with amperage rating of  extension cords. Outdoor electric lights and decorations should be plugged into circuits  protected by ground fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs).  
  • If circuits are not GFCI-protected, portable outdoor GFCIs can be purchased where electrical supplies are sold and require no special knowledge or equipment to install.
  • Inspect all lights, decorations, and extension cords for damage before using.
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