So far this year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received reports of 57 injuries and 2 fatalities related to gel fuel.

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CHICAGO — Jeff Sipple remembers seeing a fireball fly toward him. He tried to shield his face and turn his body, but flaming gel covered his face, arm and shirt.

The 31-year-old from Lakeview, Ill., wasn’t in a war zone being doused with napalm. He was attending a housewarming party for one of his friends in Chicago on June 30.

Sipple’s friend had a decorative table on his deck that was designed to hold a flame in the middle. The flame was fueled by gel that comes out of a bottle and burns without a wick.

During the party the flame went out or got low, so Sipple’s friend added more gel. That’s when the explosion occurred, spraying burning gel onto Sipple as he sat a few feet away.

“I knew I was in trouble right away,” said Sipple, who spent two days in intensive care and four days in the burn center at Loyola University Medical Center.

So far this year, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has received reports of 57 injuries and 2 fatalities related to gel fuel and the decorative pots and tables used to hold the substance.

On the same day Sipple was burned, a 51-year-old man died in an Orlando, Fla., hospital after being splattered with similar gel a few weeks earlier.

Brent Miller and his wife, Tracey, had been using gel fuel in a portable firepot in late May on their patio in Kissimmee, Fla. Miller added more fuel, and gel exploded from the pot, his lawyer said. He fell into a coma due to his injuries and died a few weeks later.

In June, the brand of fuel that was associated with Miller’s death was recalled, but several other companies make and sell similar products, including the BirdBrain Fuel Gel that burned Sipple, according to Sipple and his lawyer.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan says she wants the safety commission to recall all gel fuel products.

“It doesn’t matter who manufactures the product; it is inherently dangerous,” Madigan said. “People have no idea it can explode into this flaming fireball.”

Safety commission spokesman Scott Wolfson said the agency is investigating products on the market and their manufacturers to determine why such serious explosions have occurred.

Wolfson said that while the safety agency is investigating its cases, manufacturers are also looking into ways to add attachments or change the fuel bottles or fire pots to prevent explosions.

The “instructions and warnings” section of BirdBrain Inc.’s website tells consumers not to add gel to an open fire or flame because of the danger of a flash and severe burns. The instructions also say that, before refilling, the reservoir for gel should be allowed to cool to avoid the risk of vapor flare-ups.

Attempts by the Tribune to reach BirdBrain Inc. for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Jim Davidson, owner of WindFlame Inc., a designer and importer of fire pots that also distributes gel fuel, said people need to be responsible and cautious when they are using dangerous, flammable products.

Throwing fuel into a hot metal container is just like throwing water on grease on a stove — “it will splatter stuff up,” he said.

Gel fuel has been available for at least 20 years but has become more popular recently. Part of the product’s appeal is that the gels will stay lit outside, even in wind, Davidson said. Plus, the flames can be tall — about five or six inches.

Consumers and their attorneys say it is hard to tell whether the fuel gel is burning because sometimes there is no visible flame.

“You don’t know when it’s lit,” said Karl Burgunder, an attorney for Brent Miller’s family.

Dana Mendoza said she thought the flame had gone out after the firepot she was using in her suburban Lyons, Ill., backyard tipped over on a table.

“I thought it was like an ordinary candle,” she said.

Then she looked at her 2-year-old daughter, Ilana, who had caused the firepot to tip over when she bumped the table while climbing under it to get a toy.

“She was on fire,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza laid her daughter on the ground and covered her with her own body. Ilana, now 3, received third-degree burns on her face and arm. Mendoza had second-degree burns on her thigh.

The gel also makes it extremely difficult to put out a fire if something, or someone, starts burning, said the safety agency’s Wolfson.

The age-old “stop, drop and roll” doesn’t work very well, Wolfson said. The gel can also spread, so someone trying to extinguish a flame on another person can get the gel smeared on them and be burned.

Sipple said he feels lucky that his friend spared Sipple’s face from a more serious burn than it received. When Sipple was on fire, his friend rushed toward him and somehow wiped the gel from Sipple’s face onto his own shirt.

Sipple’s arm ended up being the most severely burned part of his body because the gel stayed there until it burned away

“I can’t believe it’s that volitive of a substance,” he said.