From flicker to insatiable inferno, fire can devour a house in minutes

March 07, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

Late at night, in a darkened living room, a candle burns its last.

Flickering in a pool of wax, the flame darts toward a rumpled shirt left close by, carelessly.

The candle expires, having passed on its legacy. The shirt ignites, and a chemical creature begins to stir.

The house is still, the doors locked. But now a killer is loose inside.

Its name is "Fire." And it has had horrible dimensions in Baltimore this year, most recently snuffing out nine lives in a matter of mere minutes.

Fire investigators Christopher Gauss and Bob Thomas have fought the creature, studied its footprints and know its behavior.

The power of fire deserves great respect, they said. Most people have no idea how quickly the flame of a candle or kitchen match can turn malevolent. They cite a scenario that is not exactly the one that took those nine lives -- but it is close enough.

Imagine yourself in the darkened living room.

Thirty seconds after it caught fire, the shirt ignites the sofa.

At one minute four seconds, the sofa's polyurethane cushions melt, causing billows of toxic smoke.

At one minute 23 seconds, the living room is in flames, but there is no sign of fire in the rest of the house. The creature is growing stronger but not giving away its position yet.

At one minute 35 seconds, a curtain of black smoke falls quickly in the living room, and the temperature there climbs to 190 degrees -- more than a person can bear.

At one minute 47 seconds, the killer becomes restless and begins to prowl. Wispy tendrils of smoke drift into the hallway and up the stairs, tripping a smoke alarm that starts beeping furiously.

Downstairs, the living room becomes an inferno.

Two and a half minutes after the first flame, the temperature above the burning sofa is 400 degrees. Ten seconds later, it is 500 degrees and rising.

At three minutes 40 seconds -- less time than it takes for some television commercial breaks -- the living room temperature reaches 1,400 degrees. A television set and videocassette recorder melt together; plastic toys become toxic blobs. Goaded by the fierce heat, a cupboard explodes into flame by itself, as if part of a magic act.

At four minutes, the downstairs succumbs. Windows burst, releasing clouds of smoke and toxic gases -- the first outward sign of the inferno within.

Five minutes after the first flame, a single breath in the nursery upstairs is lethal.

The time sequence of this blaze comes from a training film used by Captain Gauss of the Baltimore County fire investigation division. Mr. Thomas is deputy chief fire marshal for Maryland. Both said the velocity of fire is astonishing; all fire needs to grow is oxygen, combustible material and air currents.

The creature's swiftness was demonstrated in a blaze Feb. 26 in in a Hollins Street rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore. One candle on the first floor triggered the force that took nine lives. The building was two blocks from an engine house. Firefighters arrived in time to remove the dead.

The toll from the fire was Baltimore's highest in a decade.

"People don't understand how fast a fire burns," Captain Gauss said. A room may be engulfed in two minutes; the entire house in 10. "Once it's an open flame, there's no time to grab the family photo album."

The public wrongly assumes that the cry of a smoke alarm provides a two-minute warning, Mr. Thomas said.

"When that [detector] goes off, you've got seconds -- less than 30 -- to get out," he said. "Don't try to fight a fire. Placing yourself in harm's way is a stupid action.

"Fire doesn't give you a second chance. You either get it right the first time, or you die."

The creature's metabolism works like this: The more a fire eats, the hotter it gets. The hotter it gets, the more it devours. And, from the outset, it spews carbon monoxide and other toxic gases in a plume that extends far beyond the flames.

"Fire never stops growing. It consumes one room and then looks for another," Mr. Thomas said. "It feeds on itself."

Fire carries an arsenal of weapons, Captain Gauss said. "Smoke, flames, heat, gases . . . they can all get you, because a fire is multiheaded," he said. "How much of this stuff can you inhale? One breath, two at most. It burns your lungs and the lining in your throat. The gases make you disoriented, groggy, almost drunk. That's why we find people in closets. They get confused by the roar and the stinging smoke."

Smoke kills

Most people killed by fire succumb to smoke inhalation. Few actually burn to death. "The toxicity from the smoke is the killer," Mr. Thomas said. "A fire is pitch black, not as Hollywood portrays it.

"Most people are dead long before the flames hit them."

One way to escape a blaze is to crawl beneath it, he said. Heat and flames rise quickly, fanning out across the ceiling. But fire burns downward more slowly, descending like a stage curtain in each room.

That creates a split-level hell, with the bottom less daunting than the top. (The difference in temperature between floor and ceiling can exceed 1,000 degrees.) If you remain standing, you're lost in choking blackness. But there may be enough visibility near the floor to allow you to escape.

Eighty people died in fires in Maryland last year, and many of those fatalities were preventable, Mr. Thomas said. "For months, we've preached that if the power goes out in your home, use flashlights for illumination. There are no devastating results if a flashlight tips over."

And a candle?

"A candle can be as lethal as a loaded gun."

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