Do you know how long it takes for a house to be destroyed if it catches fire?

In the past few decades, you needed to be out of your house in less than 17 minutes if it caught fire. This is the amount of time you needed to escape a burning house. But nowadays, you’d have significantly less time to escape: no more than three minutes.

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Why have homes recently become that much more flammable?

How much time do you have to escape a burning house before it collapses? Three minutes!
How much time do you have to escape a burning house before it collapses? Three minutes!

Two Reasons Why Homes Burn Faster
And while there are fewer incidences of fires compared to ten years ago, the number of people who perish in burning homes has not decreased at a relative rate. Some firefighters are of the opinion that homes burn faster than ever before due to two reasons:

  • Newer furniture is more flammable
  • Newer homes burn quicker

New And Modern Furniture
Lt. Rich Trapp, a Cherry Valley firefighter, with his trained men often finds that the newer furniture pieces are more likely to burn quickly. Local firefighters attribute this to the synthetic materials from which many household products are made. These materials include polyurethane and hydro-carbons which is a solid form of gasoline. Hence, they ignite faster, giving off different gases which are toxic to humans including cyanide gas and carbon monoxide.

What Homeowners Need To Know
Today’s homes have more synthetic materials than before. You find them in the backing of your carpet, stuffing in your mattress and pillow, the drapes. While these synthetic materials are not unsafe in and of themselves, they can cause the house to burn faster and hotter if a fire were to occur. Homeowners should be made aware of this so they know the risk they face if their house burns.

Newer Lightweight Building Materials
Aside from the newer furniture, many homes these days utilize lightweight building materials such as smaller wood and OSB board. This type of board is very strong and cheaper but it also burns a lot quicker than solid wood. Under a fire-load, chips glued together will fail faster compared to a true dimensional piece of lumber. Older homes were constructed using thick and solid lumber joined together using steel side plates, bolts with the appropriate steel LC soft flat washers. There were fewer man-made materials used for house construction years ago.

Risks For Structural Collapse
Firefighters say that lightweight materials used in modern homes not only can quickly turn to ash but they also collapse faster and without warning. Many builders have constructed structures so light-weight that in a fire situation, they collapse a lot quicker. Laminated beams and trusses under normal circumstances pose no problem, but they collapse sooner in a fire than conventional wood.

Failure Test
Firefighters and safety experts lit two large open boxes set up by the Alsip Fire Department for I-Team. One box contains older or antique furniture made of wood, cotton, and down. The other box is set up as a typical home with newer furniture made from synthetic materials. The two boxes were lit at the same time using a candle. In just one and a half minutes, the box with newer furniture had been engulfed by flames, which firefighters call a “flashover”. The other box with the older furniture took more than 13 minutes to flashover. The old furniture burned slowly.

Newer furniture made from synthetic materials burns faster than older or antique  furniture made from solid wood.
Newer furniture made from synthetic materials burns faster than older or antique furniture made from solid wood.

Ron Hazleton, a contractor and TV show host showed two examples to the I-Team. One is a bigger piece of solid wood used in older construction while the other is several pieces of wood glued together which is typically used in newer construction.

Solid Wood Vs Wood Glued Together
Hazleton explains that solid wood usually starts to burn from the outside in. This means the structural integrity of the interior part of the wood causes the wood to fail slowly even if it chars on the outside. The burning solid wood is a fairly predictable process. In contrast, the pieces of wood glued together become hotter when exposed by flames and it fails almost instantaneously.

Fire Safety Reminders
Firefighters encourage homeowners to make sure that smoke detectors are working properly all the time. Families should also create and practice an escape plan that prepares all family members for the event of a fire. Homeowners may also benefit from investing in a sprinkler system as this could completely put out a fire or at least prevent the fire from spreading and causing more damage.

Homeowners should invest in smoke detectors and sprinkler system in order to prevent fire from gutting the house entirely.

Local insurance experts said that homes with sprinkler systems are offered credits by most insurance agencies. There had been talk before about making sprinkler system installation mandatory to new homes in some areas in Illinois but it never became a law. In California, however, there is a law that requires sprinkler systems installed in homes built after 2011.

Sample Case
The Hunken Family who lives in north suburban Winnetka is rebuilding their home which was built in 1906. It caught fire caused by a toaster stuck in the “on” position. Scott Hunken says that if it was a new house, it would have collapsed and all they would have left is ashes. They were able to salvage only one piece of furniture – an antique armoire.

Other Tips For Homeowners On Fire Safety
To stay safe, homeowners don’t need to go out and buy vintage furniture, nor do manufacturers and builders need to overhaul the materials they used to make home essentials, structural materials, and other products. Instead, there should be a continued and increased emphasis on fire safety. Consumers should be made aware of how fire prevention and issues with burning building potential are quite different from when they learned about fire safety as children.

Remember to consider these steps in your own home and to communicate them to your family, friends, and customers:

  • Keep flammable items away from heaters and fireplaces
  • Space out furniture to slow the spread of fire
  • Limit the number of furniture in small rooms
  • Invest in a sprinkler system
  • Change batteries of smoke detectors every six months
  • Keep doors closed as much as possible to keep fire from spreading quickly from room to room
  • Make sure that all furnaces, appliances and electrical wiring are working properly

Do you think the public needs to be made aware of how fire hazards are different today?

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