Solar panels pose risks for firefighters

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Because of the risk of electrocution, solar panels limit where firefighters can cut into a roof. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Because of the risk of electrocution, solar panels limit where firefighters can cut into a roof. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Panels exposed to light continue to generate energy even if firefighters shut off electricity to the home. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Panels exposed to light continue to generate energy even if firefighters shut off electricity to the home. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
Firefighters had to deal with flames and solar panels at a Mesa house early Monday morning. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5) Firefighters had to deal with flames and solar panels at a Mesa house early Monday morning. (Source: 3TV/CBS 5)
MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

Valley firefighters face all kinds of dangers, but crews say they encountered one on a home in Mesa Monday that is becoming more common: solar panels.

Mesa firefighters said solar panels on the roof of a home near Dobson and Baseline roads made ventilating the early-morning fire more difficult.

[ORIGINAL STORY: Several fire crews help battle Mesa house fire that displaces 8]

Because of the risk of electrocution, solar panels limit where firefighters can cut into a roof. Panels exposed to light continue to generate energy even if firefighters shut off electricity to the home.

The panels can also make firefighters wary of climbing onto a roof in the first place, said Phoenix Fire Capt. Rob McDade.

In dark and smoky conditions, the panels can be a tripping hazard. Their added weight can also make a roof more likely to collapse during an intensely burning fire, he said.

"Certainly these considerations shouldn't affect a homeowner or business owner's decision to put solar on their roof," said Mark Holohan, a board member and former president of the Arizona Solar Energy Industries Association.

"There have been a million solar customers now in the United States, and the record is excellent," he said. "There have been very, very few fires [caused by solar panels]. And we'll make that probability even lower with these continued improvements in the technology and the building codes."

[RELATED: Talk to APS before choosing a solar contractor]

States like Arizona have updated building codes in the last few years to give firefighters 3-foot lanes on residential homes to work around solar panels. There are different spacing requirements for different types of buildings.

"The new lanes are great," McDade said. "They'll provide us with new ways to get around on the roof, but unfortunately there are thousands of homes that have the old technology and they don't have to change that."

McDade said new solar technology is raising new concerns for firefighters: companies like Tesla are making solar panels that are designed to look just like roof tiles.

"So you've got energy on top of your roof that looks like a normal roof," he said. "Yet another obstacle we're going to have to deal with."

McDade said the department appreciates green energy technology but hopes manufacturers will work with fire protection experts to enhance safety.

"A sticker, a sign: 'Hey! Solar panels on the roof,'" McDade said.

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Derek StaahlDerek Staahl is an Emmy Award-winning reporter and fill-in anchor who loves covering stories that matter most to Arizona families.

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Derek Staahl

This once-uncompromising "California guy" got his first taste of Arizona in 2015 while covering spring training baseball for his former station. The trip spanned just three days, but Derek quickly decided Phoenix should be his next address. He joined CBS 5 and 3TV four months later, in August 2015. Before packing his bags for the Valley of the Sun, Derek spent nearly four years at XETV in San Diego, where he was promoted to Weekend Anchor and Investigative Reporter. Derek chaired the Saturday and Sunday 10 p.m. newscasts, which regularly earned the station's highest ratings for a news program each week. Derek’s investigative reporting efforts into the Mayor Bob Filner scandal in 2013 sparked a "governance crisis" for the city of San Diego and was profiled by the region’s top newspaper. Derek broke into the news business at WKOW-TV in Madison, WI. He wrote, shot, edited, and presented stories during the week, and produced newscasts on the weekends. By the end of his stint, he was promoted to part-time anchor on WKOW’s sister station, WMSN. Derek was born in Los Angeles and was named the “Undergraduate Broadcast Journalism Student of the Year” in his graduating class at USC. He also played quads in the school’s famous drumline. When not reporting the news, Derek enjoys playing drumset, sand volleyball, and baseball.

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