Dangers of modern life: Homes now burn faster than before

WICHITA, Kan. — If a fire breaks out at your house, even if the smoke alarm alerts you, don't count on more than three minutes to escape, fire officials say. And you might have less time before the gases overcome you, said Bob McLemore, the fire chief in Colby, Kan., and president of the Kansas State Association of Fire Chiefs.

You might think you'll have enough time. But if it's 2 a.m. and you're in a deep sleep, the smoke detector battery is dead and the fire's narcotic gases dull your senses, you can be left so disoriented you can't find an escape window only feet from your bed.

The scenario is increasingly possible, fire safety officials say. Homes are burning faster than in years past, they say, because common furnishings are made of combustible synthetic materials.

A foam cushion, for example, can burn like gasoline because the chemical components release heat faster than natural materials like wood and cotton.

Another factor is that new homes — in subdivisions that are sometimes located farther from fire stations — are built with thinner lumber and more open floor plans that make them burn faster, safety officials say.

In Wichita, six people have died in fires this year. A foam mattress was the point of origin in a September fire that killed a 16-year-old girl.

Fire safety organizations advocate sprinkler systems in new homes to slow fires, limit damage and save lives.

While California has adopted a state law requiring sprinklers, Kansas has moved in the opposite direction: This year, the Legislature enacted a law that permanently prohibits cities and counties from requiring sprinkler systems in new homes or duplexes. Builders' representatives sought the law.

Ed Bricknell, who retired as Wichita fire marshal in 2009, said he thinks communities should move toward requiring sprinklers in new homes.

"You can put a sprinkler system in your lawn," he said. "And I've never heard of anybody dying of dry grass."

Years ago, Bricknell said, it took a "big fight" to require that houses have smoke alarms.

"And the fight with the sprinkler system is going to be the same thing," he said.

The sprinkler fight boils down to a disagreement between fire safety officials and builders over cost and benefit. Fire officials say the added cost is reasonable — with a national average of about $1.60 a square foot, or $3,200 for a 2,000-square-foot house. The cost drops as more residents install the systems.

But Wess Galyon, head of the Wichita Area Builders Association, said the lowest price in the Wichita area is $3 a square foot, depending on the configuration of the home. That is a minimum of $5,000 to $7,000 per home, Galyon said.

New homes have safer electrical systems and appliances and other components that make them less likely to catch on fire, Galyon said.

A fatal example

A Sept. 18 fire at a 92-year-old home on Dodge, near Second and Seneca, is not a likely scenario where sprinklers could have made a difference because the house is so old.

Even if Wichita had a sprinkler ordinance, the house would be unlikely to have sprinklers unless it had undergone a major remodeling that would make installation practical. But the incident does show how a fast-moving fire involving synthetic material can end in death.

In tracing the path of the fire, Wichita fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said he and his investigators determined that it started on a first-floor bedroom mattress on which an adult smoked a cigarette before leaving that morning.

Bevis gave this account:

It appears that embers from the cigarette ignited bedding on a foam mattress. The fire could have gone from open flame to flashover — simultaneous ignition of the entire room — in less than a minute but more likely in two to three minutes. In a flashover, a fire sends energy up to the ceiling, where the temperature reaches about 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.

As the fire rapidly grew, 16-year-old Lindsay "Lu" Ford was home alone, apparently still asleep, on the second floor. Heat, smoke and toxic gases began moving through the open door of the first-floor bedroom, to the living room and to an open, vaulted stairwell that acted as a chimney, drawing gases to the second floor.

A fire's gases are fluid, flowing from one room to another. A closed door can provide a temporary barrier, slowing a fire. Wichita requires a smoke alarm outside each sleeping area. Bevis recommends that people who close their bedroom door at night also have a smoke alarm in the bedroom.

But in Lindsay's home, there was no working smoking alarm, fire officials said.

Bevis concluded that Lindsay was being affected by the gases early in the fire. Gases, combined with oxygen depletion, have an intoxicating effect that lowers basic mental function and the ability to make simple movements.

In leaving her bedroom, Lindsay moved directly into the path of the gases and heat flowing up the stairway. She ended up partly in a bathtub. Bevis theorized that she became disoriented and fell into the tub.

She had windows in her bedroom that she had previously used to get out onto a first-floor roof, Bevis said. Had she been able to think clearly, she might have been able to escape through the windows.

Her injuries came from the gases and radiant heat.


The solution isn't throwing out foam mattresses, Bevis said.

Instead, people need to be diligent about keeping candles, space heaters, cigarettes and other heat sources away from things that burn easily.

"In this day and age, you can't eliminate everything that's combustible," he said.

Part of prevention, he said, is being aware of potential fuel for a fire: hoarded items, fabric-covered office cubicles and that thin wood paneling in 1970s mobile homes — what Bevis and his investigators call "kindling on the wall."

Trend of faster fires

The National Fire Protection Association, which promotes fire safety and safe building and electrical codes, has seen a shorter time from ignition to when fires reach the flashover point — when "that space is no longer tenable for human life," said Ken Willette, division manager of the group's public fire protection unit.

The thinking used to be that if a fire crew could get one hose on a fire within 10 minutes from the fire's start, it would cool things enough to prevent the fatal conditions.

But in the past decade, Willette said, "We are seeing flashover conditions starting from six minutes from start of the fire" instead of 10 minutes.

The theory is that the "fuel package" — the typical contents of a home — have become more synthetic and therefore burn faster and with more noxious fumes than natural materials like wood and cotton. Now, drapes, rugs, furniture and wall hangings are often synthetic.

So firefighters are finding flashover conditions before they arrive or just as they arrive and don't have time to rescue the occupants, Willette said.

Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp said that on average, the city's fire crews reach the scene four minutes and 30 seconds from the time the call is dispatched to them.

Crisp estimated that in a quarter to half of the home fires in Wichita, flashover has already occurred or nearly occurred when firefighters arrive.

"We didn't see that many ... 20 years ago," Crisp said.

Crisp said he thinks it's "absolutely" due to the prevalence of synthetic contents.

Because combustible furnishings are so common, it's especially important for people to dispose of smoking materials safely, have an escape plan, designate someone to call 911 and remember to stay out once they get out, Willette said.

Sprinkler pros and cons

Particularly because of the synthetic "fuel package," the National Fire Protection Association is advocating for sprinkler systems to become part of building codes in one- and two-family homes nationwide, Willette said.

Unlike what people see in TV shows where homes get flooded by sprinklers, the systems — activated by heat — direct a minimal amount of water onto the source, stalling the fire so residents can escape, advocates say. Only the sprinkler near the fire operates; the rest aren't activated unless exposed to heat, advocates say.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California state fire agency, said having a sprinkler system is "like the fire department living at your house."

Sprinkler advocates say statistics show the systems greatly cut the death rate and property losses — and lower insurance rates — and that most fires can be stopped by one sprinkler. They say maintenance is minimal.

The advocates contend that sprinklers are vital because alarms can only alert someone, but not fight the fire, and because smoke alarms often don't work due to dead batteries.

Galyon, the president and CEO of the Wichita Area Builders Association, argues that increased survivability with sprinklers is negligible when smoke detectors are working.

And sprinklers can cause problems, he said. In Kansas, a system in an attic is more vulnerable to freezing and causing extensive damage than in places like California, Galyon said.

"On balance, we didn't see any benefit," he said. "And I think the legislators didn't see the benefit either."

For consumers, he said, "It erodes affordability."

Although the law keeps cities and counties from requiring sprinklers, home buyers can still opt for having it installed, he said.

"Don't force them to put in what they don't want," he said.

But to McLemore, head of the Kansas fire chiefs association, the new state law prohibiting sprinkler ordinances diminishes "home rule" because it "takes away the ability of the local governments" to manage a local safety issue.