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THOUSANDS of Victorian homes fitted with halogen downlights are potential death traps, with 57 house fires in Melbourne over the past 18 months directly caused by the fashionable lights igniting roofing insulation. Most worryingly, firefighters warn that as the blazes spread rapidly in the roof cavity, ceiling-mounted smoke alarms are unable to detect the inferno and most residents only become aware of the fire when the roof starts to collapse around them.

Unless tougher regulations on the use and installation of halogen downlights are introduced, it is only a matter of time before someone is killed, the Metropolitan Fire brigade has told The Sunday Age. Two young children almost died in separate blazes when roofs crashed onto their beds while they were sleeping, brigade investigation and analysis unit officer Rod East said.

Melbourne blazes alone have caused an estimated $17 million damage in the past 18 months. Halogen lights, which produce heat of up to 370 degrees at the base, are not dangerous until they come into contact with combustible roofing insulation, Mr East said.

"I don't think people realise the dangers," he told The Sunday Age. "We're very lucky no one's been killed in these fires." MFB officers met representatives of Energy Safe Victoria, the state's statutory independent electricity, gas and pipeline safety and technical regulator, on Thursday to discuss tightening regulations on the use of halogen lights, as many are installed incorrectly and without non-flammable casings.

Mr East said other downlights did not appear to pose the same risk. Home owners needed to use licensed electricians to install halogen lights correctly, ensuring a clear space around them of at least 30 centimetres, he said. Insulation such as the blow-in variety made from paper pulp was meant to be fire-retardant, but this often lasted only a few years. "There's a lot of subcontractors out there where you really worry about the quality of their product," Mr East said.

"You know they pump it in in the morning and at night the joint's burning down." So far this year, 21 house fires in Melbourne have been sparked by halogen downlights igniting blow-in insulation. This compares to 36 similar house fires last year and 32 in 2005.

Mr East described halogen light fires as "horrific … they are burning in the roof before anyone knows".

In the most recent near-fatal fire, a boy aged about 10 became trapped when the roof fell on his bed on his family's first night back in their newly renovated Sandringham home. He scrambled free and a firefighter carried him to safety. Sustainability Victoria's Roger Kluske said he was shocked by the number of house fires caused by halogen lights.

"Halogens are a bloody nightmare and they're everywhere, in homes, office buildings, cafes … The easiest thing to do would be to ban them," he said.
 
 
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