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news item News Tuesday, June 25, 2019 Tuesday, June 25, 2019 4:13 PM - Tuesday, June 25, 2019 4:13 PM

Beach fire safety - Sawyer's story

Ahead of summer holiday, Boston patient shares his story as a warning

Sometimes there is nothing better than a summer evening spent at the beach. Beach fires can make for a particularly festive and fun experience. That glow of the flames under the moonlight can be magical, but beach fires come with dangers of which some people are unaware.

Last September, Sawyer and his family were on a Cape Cod beach for his grandfather’s 85th birthday celebration. The family had a permit for a beach fire and was well aware of all the safety regulations that come along with responsibly having a fire on a public beach. Plenty of adults were on hand to supervise the kids.

After a fun evening, it was time to clean up. The fire pit was dragged down to the water’s edge to extinguish the flames. Keeping the fire in a container prevented hot embers and ashes from hitting the sand where people were walking. However, because it was dark, it was difficult to tell where the fire pit had been and where very hot sand remained.

Ten-year-old Sawyer was in a chair, near where the fire pit had been. When he got up, barefoot, to run to the parking lot, he crossed the hot sand. Sawyer fell to the ground, screaming in pain. Sawyer’s mom, Diane, pulled out her cell phone to use the flashlight. She could tell immediately that Sawyer’s feet were burned. The family called 911. Paramedics arrived and knew that Sawyer needed specialized burn treatment. They called a helicopter to fly him to Boston.

The ambulance ride and the flight to Boston were agonizing for Sawyer. Because Sawyer placed his right foot on the hot sand first, it sustained more severe burns than his left foot. Burns that are very deep can affect nerve endings, actually decreasing pain. Sawyer’s burns did not impact his nerve endings, which was a good thing overall, but made for an excruciating experience.

Diane says they had no idea there was a hospital in Boston specializing in pediatric burn care. The team at Shriners Hospitals for Children — Boston was waiting for Sawyer when he arrived.

With the soles of his feet badly burned, he needed painful debridement to remove the damaged skin and frequent dressing changes to promote proper healing. Physical and occupational therapy were also part of his daily care to ensure he remained mobile.

Along with the obvious challenges that come with being hospitalized with such a serious injury, Sawyer was homesick. He missed his dog, Denver. Brooke Allen, a child life specialist assigned to Sawyer’s case, arranged a visit by one of the hospital’s therapy dogs after a particularly difficult bandage change. Diane said, “This was the most amazing way to lift Sawyer’s spirits, and really brought a smile to his face.”

Sawyer with therapy dog

Sawyer’s burns required around-the-clock care and he stayed in the hospital for two weeks. After he was discharged, he returned weekly for dressing changes. As his wounds continued to heal, the follow-up appointments became less frequent.

The week following the accident, Sawyer was supposed to start at a new school. When he got home from the hospital, the school arranged for tutors to help him stay caught up on lessons until he could return to the classroom. Six weeks into the school year, Sawyer was ready. Brooke facilitated a school re-entry in collaboration with the Harwich and Chatham Fire Departments, and members of the Boston Firefighters Burn Foundation. This allowed Sawyer’s peers to learn about his accident and better understand his injury. Brooke was also able to help Sawyer answer questions from the other students.

An active kid, Sawyer had to sit out the fall golf season, but he was back on his feet in November to participate in a Spartan Race at Fenway Park as part of Shriners Hospitals for Children’s Team No Limits. This was an awesome feat for Sawyer and gave him a major boost in confidence. After completing the race, Sawyer knew it was just a matter of time before he could get back to all his favorite activities.

Looking back on his experience, Sawyer said, “I have learned and received so much, I want to give something back. The knowledge I have gained from this experience to help prevent this from happening to anyone else is the gift I would like to give back to everyone.”

As we head into another beach season, Sawyer’s family wants his story to be a warning for others. “Sawyer was injured because accidents happen,” said Diane. “We tried to take all the necessary safety steps to make sure everyone was safe, but there are steps people can take to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

The National Fire Protection Association recommends the following when having a fire outdoors:

  • Before setting up a fire, be sure it is permitted. Check with your local fire department.
  • If fires are permitted, they need to be at least 25 feet away from any structure and anything that can burn.
  • Clear away dry leaves and sticks, overhanging low branches and shrubs.
  • Avoid burning on windy, dry days. It is easier for open burning to spread out of control when it is windy and dry.
  • Watch children while the fire is burning. Never let children or pets play or stand too close to the fire.
  • Attend to the fire at all times. A fire left alone for only a few minutes can grow into a damaging fire.
  • Keep a fire small, which is easier to control.
  • Never use gasoline or other flammable/combustible liquids.
  • Always have a hose or bucket of water nearby to put out the fire. Make sure to put it completely out before leaving the site.

Additionally, to prevent a burn injury after the fire is out:

  • DO NOT PUT OUT BEACH FIRES WITH SAND. Beach fires should be put out with water only and left uncovered. Sand traps heat and can intensify the temperature, creating a hidden danger. Many burns occur after flames have been extinguished, when someone walks across the sand, unaware that a fire is still smoldering below.
  • If you use a fire pit, mark a clear perimeter around the fire zone, so that even if the pit is removed, people can tell where the hot sand or ground remains.