A little flame can grow into a large fire that destroys a house and endangers the lives of the occupants in as little as 30 seconds. That’s a big reason why experts say that more Americans each year are killed in fires than in all other natural disasters combined. Even if no one is hurt, a fire can cause tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage, with the cost of rebuilding a burning kitchen reaching $50,000 alone.
What’s most concerning is that recent home fires have increased in danger and devastation due to the flammability of the home and the items inside it. Experts say that as recently as 30 years ago residents had an average of 14 to 17 minutes to escape a house fire.
Due to materials common in modern homes, tenants only have 2 to 3 minutes to leave – that’s just 120 to 180 seconds. A house filled with largely synthetic-based furnishings can burn down in less than 240 seconds.
So let’s take a look at what happens during those four devastating minutes. For our example, we will use a kitchen fire, which is the most common type of house fire.
How Fast Can Fire Spread?
As cooking fires make up nearly half (44%) of all home fires, our house fire scenario begins on the cooktop. Within seconds, the contents of an oil-filled pot or pan can spill over the edge and onto a cooking flame or hot electric burner, resulting in a hazardous situation. Grease or other fatty materials catch fire in a matter of hundredths of a second. The flashpoint of many commonly used cooking oils is approximately 600 degrees Fahrenheit. However, when using gas or electric burners at high heat, temperatures can rise to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Below is a description of a timeline of how dangerous and fast-spreading house fire can be.
First 30 seconds of fire
The quick spread of fire can cause grease or oil residue on an unclean stovetop to ignite and rapidly spread throughout the range. Cooking oil residue can easily catch fire and spread to nearby combustibles such as paper towels, cardboard boxes, and dishcloths. The heat from the fire produces smoke and a mixture of dangerous gases that rise into the air. It’s crucial to immediately extinguish the fire to avoid burns and the potential for starting another fire. Moving the pot or pan could make the situation worse. Water should never be added to a cooking fire as it will only make the oily flames worse. To extinguish the fire, place a lid on the pan or cover it with a baking sheet instead of using water.
30-60 seconds of fire
As the fire intensifies and grows, flammable items such as wooden countertops, wallpaper, baskets, and curtains may catch fire. The heat of the fire causes hot air and smoke to rise to the ceiling, spreading the flames to other areas. Inhaling the heated, smoke-filled air can be dangerous and quickly cause damage to your airways. The toxic chemicals produced during a house fire can lead to unconsciousness after just a few breaths.
60-120 seconds of fire
The smoke and hot air rising from the fire are over 190 degrees F as the flames get hotter. Cookbooks, shelves, tables, and chairs in the rest of the kitchen become warm as a result of the fire’s heat radiation.
Below the ceiling, the hot cloud of smoke grows deeper and thicker. The survival duration is reduced to less than a minute due to the fire producing 3,400 parts per million (average levels in enclosed room fires) of cyanide and carbon monoxide.
More people die in fires than from any other harmful byproduct of combustion thanks to carbon monoxide poisoning. The smoky layer swiftly leaves the space as it descends to the top of a doorway, an open window, or a vent. The spread of hot air and poisonous gases reached the second floor through the staircases and corridors.
120-180 seconds of fire
Kitchen cupboards, wooden counters, shelves filled with plastic storage containers, and dry items like cereal, crackers, and cookie boxes in cardboard boxes are all destroyed by the fire. Heat is produced at an increasing pace. The heated gases’ upper layer reaches a temperature of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, which is lethal for humans.
A dense smoke cloud is hovering close to the ground, intensifying the heat. It’s important to note that the smoke also contains harmful substances such as arsenic from wood preservatives and lead from old paint, as well as dangerous gases.
Fire can spread through either direct contact with flames or through auto-ignition, which is when items catch fire without being directly touched by flames due to high temperature. Fire can spread through either direct contact with flames or through auto-ignition, which is when items catch fire without being directly touched by flames due to high temperature.
180-240 seconds of fire
A room fire’s heat can reach 1100 degrees F in just 3 and one-half minutes (210 seconds). Flashover happens as a result of this. The wooden dining table, wood and upholstered chairs, cookbooks, curtains, and wall decor all catch fire in the space.
Glass windows break and the oxygen in the room is almost completely consumed by the quick combustion. Flames and fireballs burst out of windows and doors. The stairwell becomes blocked off as a result of the thick, hot, and toxic smoke that has filled the upstairs. The intense heat generated during a flashover can reach up to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, posing a serious threat to the safety of all other rooms in the home.
The next-door living room is engulfed in flames, causing the carpet and covered furniture to ignite. Synthetic materials such as polyurethane and polyester foam found in sofas, pillows, and carpets generate a substantial amount of heat when they catch fire.
The temperature immediately increases to 500 degrees F above the sofa. Back in the kitchen, the fire has already reached the wall and ceiling, and it is now spreading swiftly through the inner walls’ structural vertical shafts and the spaces between floors’ horizontal shafts. The second floor is affected by the fire.
300-420 seconds of fire
The fire on the second floor is severe, with flames visible through open windows, and is spreading quickly. The extent of the damage will depend on the materials used in the construction of the building. It may not be possible to rescue anyone still inside.
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