Tests show house fires burning faster due to modern materials

Dan Ashley Image
Monday, November 24, 2014
Tests show house fires burning faster due to modern materials
Household products and modern building materials are making homes more flammable and house fires are burning faster and quicker.

Just three minutes -- that is the amount of time people have to get out of their house if it catches fire. It used to be 17 minutes, but because of modern building materials and the proliferation of inexpensive, flammable products, a house is just minutes from being destroyed.

According to the state fire marshal, 319 people were killed in residential fires between 2010 and 2013. A whopping, 34,132 homes were damaged across California during that same period.

California State Fire Marshall, Tonya Hoover said, "Our greatest loss of lives is in residential fires, we need to be able to protect people where they should be the safest, and that is in their homes."

Common household products found in and around peoples' homes are making homes more flammable, burning faster and quicker than ever before.

"A person has to be able to react to a fire situation in their home, in three minutes," said Hoover.

Outside of Chicago, a local fire department set up two living rooms in huge boxes. The one on the right is full of older or antique furniture, made of cotton, wool and down. The room on the left is a typical a home with newer, synthetic furniture made with chemicals like polyurethane.

Firefighters lit both rooms at the same time using a candle. In just one minute and 30 seconds, flames raged through the newer furnishings in what firefighters call a "flashover."

The old furniture burned more slowly. It takes more than 13 minutes to flashover.

"That means someone has to react very quickly to the environment," Hoover said.

John Drengenberg is the consumer safety director for Underwriters Laboratories, UL, the nation's leader in fire safety testing.

"Today we have many more synthetic materials in our homes. Synthetic materials are not bad, but today the backing on your carpeting, the drapes, even the stuffing in your mattress and your pillows is synthetic material," said Drengenberg. "And this does burn hotter and faster, and this is something that homeowners should be very much aware of."

Many modern products contain hydrocarbons, a solid form of gasoline. Not only do they ignite quicker, they let off deadly gasses like carbon monoxide and cyanide.

It's not just the contents of people's homes that are burning faster. Research at Underwriter Laboratories has shown that modern construction materials can add to the danger.

Engineered beams and wood are common in modern construction.

"This is a composite material that is different than real wood. It's actually less expensive than real wood and it is even stronger than real wood," said Drengenberg.

But it comes with a warning.

"The reality is that engineered lumber burns faster than regular wood," said Drengenberg.

There are ways homeowners can protect themselves. People can prevent fires in the first place, by keeping flammable items away from fireplaces and heaters. Spacing out furniture will slow the spread of fire, in small rooms, limit the number of items. Or, invest in fire sprinklers, California law requires them in most homes built after 2011.

State law also requires homes to have a carbon monoxide detector in every bedroom and working smoke detectors outside of them. Smoke alarms should be tested frequently, and batteries should be checked regularly to make sure they work.

It will only take a few minutes, but it could give you and your family the precious seconds you need to survive a house fire.