Understanding and Preventing Flash Fires

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By Natalie Sanchez, BA

Summer brings sunny skies and an increase in such activities as home projects, repairs, and cleaning, as well as outdoor cooking and campfires. But these activities can expose us unknowingly to the risk of a serious burn injury. That’s why it a good time take a few minutes to learn how you can reduce the chance of injury by safely storing and using common household products.

A tank of gasoline, a can of paint thinner, even a bottle of acetone if stored or used incorrectly has the potential to start a flash fire. However, as drastic as this type of fire can be, it is frequently preventable. Flash fires often result from a lack of awareness of the dangers that exist. Understanding how flash fires start, familiarizing yourself and your family to avoid this situation, and realizing how quickly a flash fire can spread are all equally important in fire prevention education.

A flash fire ignites when oxygen and fuel mix together and come into contact with a heat source that sparks the fire. These conditions create a flame that is characterized by high heat temperatures and rapid movement.

Safely Storing Household Chemicals

In-home flash fires caused by household products, such as cleaning liquids, lawn and pool care products, adhesives, and insect repellents, are often started by the vapors that are given off by the chemicals in those products.

The majority of residential flash fires fueled by such products begin because the vapor has been accidentally released. Corrosion or puncture of storage containers can allow vapors to be released into the air, which can quickly start a fire if a heat source is present. (Products that are kept in the garage or shed may pose an even greater risk because they are often forgotten and may not be properly stored.)

Because the vapors travel through the air, flash fires do not always start at the fuel source. For example, the vapors from an improperly stored can of paint thinner that is leaking may reach the nearby pilot light of a water heater. In that case, the extremely hot, quickly moving flash fire will ignite at the heat source and then travel back to the fuel source.household products, should be carefully monitored and controlled. Keeping these products away from heat sources is key to preventing fire. Making sure that the products are being stored in appropriate containers will also reduce the potential of accidental spills. Containers should be checked periodically for corrosion, holes, and properly fitting lids. When products are not in use, lids should be kept on to ensure a tight seal. Safety containers with spring-closing lids that function to relieve internal pressure and prevent spills are available for more highly combustible or flammable products.

Maintaining a Safe Work Environment

Another way to prevent flash fires is by controlling the heat source. When working with open flames, hot surfaces, welding, electricity, or radiant heat, your work area should be free of flammable and combustible materials. Protective gear is also highly recommended to prevent injuries.

You should also work in a well-ventilated area when using cleaning products indoors. Ventilation will not only allow any vapors to dissipate, but will prevent inhalation of the vapors, which can cause irritation. In some states, such as California, volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are regulated to maintain healthy air quality in cleaning products. However, a consequence of lower VOCs is an increase in a product’s flammability. A well-ventilated area is crucial to preventing a fire, as well as skin and respiratory irritation.

Using Chemicals As Intended

When flammable or combustible materials are used for purposes other than those intended by the manufacturer, injury is also more likely to occur. According to Jeff Lutz, Fire Marshal for Anaheim (California)  Fire & Rescue, “Flash fires that start by using household products incorrectly become intimate fires because of how close people are to the source when the fire starts.” For example, although gasoline is not made for cleaning, it is often used for tasks such as cleaning motor parts because it works well. However, the vapor given off from the gasoline is in direct contact with the user, which can cause significant injuries, should a flash fire occur.

“All fires can cause harm, but to be in close proximity to a flash fire can cause life-altering injuries,” says Dr. Victor Joe from UC Irvine Burn Center. “That is why Fire Prevention education is so important, especially when a fire fueled by household products can be prevented.”

“Educating the public is the best way to prevent flash fires. This includes advising the public to use household products for their intended use only,” emphasizes Lutz. He also stresses the importance of  reacting quickly when handling accidental spills in order to prevent a fire.

Rags are most commonly used to clean up spills because they are easily accessible to homeowners. However, it is important to then treat those rags as hazardous waste. They should be stored in a noncombustible container, such as a metal coffee can with a sealable lid. Used rags, along with any other hazardous household materials, should always be recycled at your local hazardous material processing center.

Sharing Prevention Tips

Fire prevention education is an ongoing process. A review of how flash fires can be prevented is a good reminder for all of us. Put these prevention “tools” to use to change your relationship with household products and reduce the risk of experiencing a fire in your home.  Your local fire department can help you implement a home fire prevention plan that includes the safe storage of household products, which will decrease the chances of a flash fire. Most importantly, share the fire prevention knowledge you’ve gained today with your family and friends. You never know whose life you might be saving by sharing proper handling tips for household products. Enjoy your summer safely!

Flash Fire Prevention Tips

  • Don’t use combustible and flammable products near a flame or heat source, such as pilot lights, lit cigarettes, and operating equipment or engines.
  • Use proper storage containers that prevent leaks and spills.
  • Keep lids on any chemical products properly closed and sealed.
  • Clean spills promptly and according to product directions.
  • Recycle or dispose of hazardous household materials at your local hazardous material processing center.
  • Don’t store hazards inside your home. 
  • Keep hazardous products out of reach of children – call poison control in the event of accidental ingestion or exposure.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), during 2007-2011 an average of 55,390 home fires per year were reported as having begun with the ignition of flammable or combustible liquid as the type of material first ignited. These fires caused an average of 202 civilian deaths per year; 2,708 civilian injuries per year; and $490 million in direct property damage per year.

From: Hall JR, Jr. Fires Starting With Flammable or Combustible Gas or Liquid. Quincy, MA: NFPA; 2014. Available at: http://www. nfpa.org/research/reports-and-statistics/fire-causes/chemicaland-gases/fires-starting-with-flammable-gas-or-flammable-orcombustible-liquid. Accessed May 28, 2015.


Natalie M. Sanchez, BA, is the community relations coordinator for Anaheim Fire & Rescue in Anaheim, California. She has written for a variety of print publications, as well as blogs, focusing on education and environmental issues.


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support Magazine, Issue 2, 2015. Burn Support Magazine is a tri-annual publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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