How a Minor Residential Fire Becomes a Blazing Inferno

Residential fires kill thousands, injure tens of thousands, and cause billions of dollars in damages every year. What surprises most fire victims is how quickly what started out as a minor problem quickly became a blazing inferno. It doesn’t take much for a small flame to grow into a life-threatening fire.

If you’ve ever wondered how a minor fire can overwhelm a home so quickly, This Old House offers a detailed explanation on their website. It breaks down residential fires minute-by-minute. Their description is simultaneously informative and shocking.

For the record, This Old House uses a kitchen fire as an example. They cite the fact that nearly half of all residential fires start in the kitchen. That notwithstanding, all the principles described in the post apply no matter where in a home a residential fire starts.

The Availability of Fuel

Whether a fire starts in the kitchen or another room, the deciding factor in how quickly it gets out of control is fuel. Where plenty of fuel is available, fires will burn more quickly. The unfortunate truth is that modern homes contain a lot more fuel than their older counterparts.

In the kitchen example, a fire typically starts on the stove. Grease spills onto a hot burner and ignites. Within seconds, the entire pot or pan is burning. Throwing water on it only spreads the flames, which is a common and unfortunate mistake.

Now, stop and think about how many flammable items are near your stove. Even a minor fire can quickly spread by igniting paper towels, dishtowels, wooden utensils, and draperies. Within a minute of starting, a kitchen fire could have already spread significantly.

Smoke and Heat Increase

As flammable materials ignite and combust, they produce toxic smoke and heat. If a small fire is not put out quickly, it can spread to other items in the room. In the kitchen, walls and cabinets are up for grabs. In a living room or dining room, fire spreads to furniture, carpets, and draperies. The more fuel the fire has, the hotter it burns.

Heat becomes a real problem in residential fires. Why? Because there is a point at which furnishings and other objects can spontaneously burst into flame. That point is known as the flash point. Some wood products can auto ignite at about 600°F. Others need higher temperatures closer to 750°. But here is the problem: the temperature inside a burning room can reach 1000° in just a few minutes.

Once the majority of objects in a room auto ignite, the fire has reached what is known as ‘flashover’. At that point, it is almost too late to save the house. In a modern home with plenty of synthetic materials and engineered lumber, flashover can be reached in under four minutes.

Fire Safety Still Important

We all learned about fire safety in school. Guess what? Nothing has changed. If anything, fire safety is more important in the era of synthetics and engineered lumber. Knowing this motivates Vivint Smart Home to encourage consumers to regularly update their knowledge of fire safety.

Be careful when you are working in the kitchen. Do not use candles anywhere near flammable substances. Never use electrical cords that are broken or frayed. You know the drill. Above all, develop and practice an escape plan. You may only have a few minutes to get out.

It only takes a few minutes for a minor fire to become a blazing inferno. If you ever find yourself looking at a minor fire that appears to be getting out of control, do not be a hero. Get out while you can.