A burning question: What's up with all the fires?

The iPod-in-the-pants conflagration earlier this week provided the ignition point for my curiosity: I mean doesn't it seem as though we're seeing an inordinate number of technology-related fires this year?

Coincidence combined with a boatload of faulty batteries, almost certainly, but a quick search of only the Network World archives turned up 10 such stories worth mentioning (I cannot imagine the flaming horror to be found in a thorough Googling). Here's the recap in chronological order:

10. The cell-phone fire that was ... then wasn't

News organizations worldwide smelled a hot story when a Vallejo, Calif., man was seriously burned in a hotel fire that authorities originally blamed on an overheated mobile phone ... as well as the man's intoxication. For days the maker of the phone remained a mystery, due both to a fire department smokescreen and the vendor's dodging of my questions. And by the time we learned it was a Sony phone, engineers from that company had convinced the fire inspector that he had it all wrong about the ignition source. Needless to say, the burned man's lawyers weren't buying that convenient flip-flop.

9. Lay-about laptop ignites, levels Maine home

Days before Valentine's Day, a Biddeford family left their Dell laptop re-charging on the living room couch while they went off to work. The subsequent fire destroyed a house that had stood for some 130 years. Said a fire official: "The couch was totally burned out and the laptop was still sitting on what remained of the sofa." Who knows? Maybe the machine fell asleep with a cigarette dangling from its USB port.

8. Fire in the hole!

Fire in a Philadelphia manhole damaged fiber-optic cables and cut off communications services to 50 AT&T business customers, including Sovereign Bank, for what must have seemed an interminable 19 hours in early March. Fortunately for those in need of cash, the bank's ATM network escaped unscathed.

7. Feds fire off warning about in-flight battery blazes

Here's a passage from the March 23 story on a warning that was prompted by a pair of airborne fires: "Issued by the Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the advisory recommends that travelers cover loose batteries with insulating tape to prevent contact with metal objects; place each battery in its own case or plastic bag; and pack spare batteries in carry-on bags rather than checked baggage." I know what you're thinking: Who knew the DoT had a PHMSA?

6. Homeless man torches Internet2

"Question: When can a cigarette take down your network? Answer: When you throw it at a bridge and light it on fire." Those immortal words were blogged by Chris Robb, an engineer at Indiana University's Global Network Operations Center who works on Internet2, after that network was brought down by a blaze set by a homeless man on a bridge connecting Boston and Cambridge. The fire also disrupted subway service, not that anyone found that newsworthy.

5. What's another 14,000 batteries anyway?

Vendors recalled some 8 million of them last year, so the June 19 announcement from Gateway that it would recall another 14,000 batteries because of "overheating" concerns seems hardly worth mentioning. Last year it was Sony batteries; these were from Samsung. Said a Gateway spokesman: "The root cause of this failure becomes apparent as the batteries age and perform repetitive charging cycles." Translation: They turn into Roman candles.

4. Toshiba says 'Don't make us hurt you'

Eight months after recalling 8 million of Sony's lithium-ion tiki torches, Toshibi executives were mortified to learn of another fire in one of their laptops and quick to place the blame squarely on the victim: "The original Sony Battery Pack had not been replaced as recommended by Sony and Toshiba. We put importance on the fact that the incidents that occurred involved unreplaced Sony Battery Packs, despite our ongoing replacement program." Translation: "We" means "our lawyers."

3. Oh, no, not the iPhone

OK, this one wasn't exactly true. In fact, it was kinda-sorta made up by Fake Steve Jobs. Funnier than a flaming iPhone, though.

2. FiOS and fire both begin with F ... Coincidence?

It all started Aug. 8 with a minor house fire sparked when a Verizon technician installing FiOS at home in Needham, Mass., hit an electrical main. Verizon copped to causing the damage and reimbursed the owner, but decided to quibble with fire officials - and me - about whether there was an actual fire or merely smoke. The rest of my summer and now early autumn has been spent chronicling FiOS-related carnage and general ineptitude, way too much of it happening at my house. Wish me well for the balance of the year.

1. Anyone have a fresh iPod-in-the-pants wisecrack?

Seems as though they have been utterly exhausted - even the lamest of the lame - since an Atlanta man's iPod-laden slacks caught fire at that city's airport earlier this week. The victim, apparently a good-natured fellow, was quoted as saying: "If TSA had come by and seen me smoking, they could have honestly thought I was a terrorist." ... Hey, pal, don't you know there's nothing funny about fire?

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