Spring Cleaning and Oily Rag Fires

Now that Spring is starting to make an appearance, many folks will be getting ready to refinish weathered outdoor decks, wood trim and furniture to look beautiful again. Be careful!  You need to know about some very real fire risks when with working oil finishes.

Fires from oily rags
Gorgeous refinished teak outdoor furniture

A while back we had a fire break out on one of our jobs in the middle of the night. Fortunately, it was confined to an exterior area where it could not affect the main property. Even so, it destroyed some tools and a wood fence and brought out the fire department. We were very lucky. If it had happened adjacent to the main structure, or if it had occurred during the dry summer months, things could have been much, much worse.

We were shocked and disturbed that such a thing could happen on one of our jobsites. We are meticulous about keeping safe working areas. Everyone on the crew is safety conscious and we have regular safety meetings. We clean-up at the end of every day.

How does this happen?

My project manager and the fire department explained to me what happened.  A painting station had been set up on the grounds outside in order to pre-finish a large quantity of IPE deck material. We had been using the station to hand apply a widely used material called IPE Oil to all sides of the deck boards. We would clean and coat the boards in the station, then transfer them to racks for drying.

Before transferring the treated boards to the drying rack, we would wipe off any excess oil with clean cotton rags. Our safety protocol was to place all used rags into a water-filled five-gallon bucket at the end of the day and seal the top before leaving. Although protocol had been followed that day, one rag apparently got left out. Turns out the questionable rag had only been used once and our employee thought it looked clean enough for continued use the next day. Wrong!

Preventive Maintenance-spontaneous combustion dangers
IPE finishing and drying racks

The rag was left on a bench next to the plastic paint station and sometime during the night it had caught fire. Once the rag was in flames it quickly spread to the plastic and that in turn caught the fence and tool box on fire. What a mess.

Spontaneous fires

The most common type of Spontaneous Combustion Fires are caused by improperly disposed of oil and stain soaked rags. As we have learned, the rags do not have to be “soaked”.

The products to be careful with are any oil-based paints, stains, teak and especially linseed oils. Varnishes, polyurethane and paint thinners are also problematic.

As I have learned the hard way, spontaneous combustion is not some interesting but freaky theory like ancient aliens. It is a real and predictable phenomenon. It WILL happen very predictably when cloth with any of the above oils on it is slowly heated to its ignition point through oxidation. This occurs over the course of only 3-6 hours.

Oxidation and heat

Oils and stains are designed to “oxidize” (interact with the oxygen in air) in order to dry properly. Apparently, any substance will begin to release heat as it oxidizes. When the material is spread out thinly on a board, the heat build-up is miniscule and not a problem.  But, if this heat has no way to escape, as happens inside a wadded or piled-up stack of rags, the temperature will raise high enough to ignite the oil and the cloth. Once a fire actually catches, look out. It can spread quickly to any other combustibles in the area and as you might imagine cause great damage to your home or property.

Prevention of spontaneous combustion fires begins with education about the risk. You and your employees need to understand how this works and take it seriously. Next, you must require really good housekeeping around the work area and strictly follow an oily rag protocol. A clean work area can prevent a fire from spreading and getting bigger by not allowing the fire fuel to burn.

Fully understanding the potential risk is the key step in eliminating these preventable fires.

Oily Rag Disposal Protocol

According to our local Los Altos Hills Fire Department you must take the following steps:

  • Use a container with a tight-fitting lid. A metal can is preferable, but a plastic can or even a zip lock bag can work if nothing else is available.
  • Place soiled and used rags inside and then fill the rest the way with water, seal the top and do not open it. This will prevent the oils from oxidizing, and thus keep the rags from heating up and igniting.
  • Contact your local garbage disposal company for their policy on disposal of both the can/bag etc., and its contents. Some companies will actually permit disposal in the regular household trash, but you need to check first.

I would emphatically also add to the list above, that if you are working with any of these volatile oil materials, only do so in areas free of combustibles, that would be safe even if a fire happened to develop.

Thinking “fail-safe” will let you sleep better at night.

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Paradise hero saves 28 lives during fire.

An unsung hero saves 28 lives during the Paradise Camp Fire… but he did not set out to do so.  On November 8th, with the wildfire racing towards him, Russel Moore of Magalia, CA did something daring. He collected 28 neighbors who could not escape the flames on their own, then hid them in the safest place he could knew…his church.

That decision turned out to be a godsend, literally.  As Moore and his followers took cover, the fire burned completely over and around them destroying everything except… miraculously, the church where they were hiding. When they finally dared to emerge from the structure on the  November 9th, they could not believe what they saw, or that they had survived.

Moore and the 28 lucky folks he helped are happy to be alive, even though every one of them lost their home and all of their possessions.  So what is Mr. Moore doing now? Helping survivors at the church of course. What else? 

Listen to the story here in his own words. Check out the images below of areas around the church. See how to create a plan for dealing with disasters.

Paradise hero saves 28 during fire
Camp fire recovery center at miracle church

Hero saves 28 during Paradise fire
Destruction surrounds the church

Hero saves 28 by hiding in church
Paradise church a sanctuary during fire

Paradise Camp Fire-Toxic To Everyone!

Disasters high costs

As of today, the toll from the fire started last week in northern California, is 71 fatalities and 150,000 acres lost. The fire is only 55% contained but fortunately it is slowing down.

Paradise fire toxic to everyone
Paradise Camp Fire

Many older homes have toxic material embedded

The recent count of structures burned in the Camp Fire in Paradise CA is now over 12,000. Many, if not most of those destroyed were older stock built prior to 1979. The problem with older structures is they contain toxic materials like lead and asbestos from earlier (and now banned) construction methods.

Here’s a brief rundown on the paint and other coatings used on most of those structures 

From the 1940’s to the 1970s PCB’s were widely used in paints and preservatives. Most paints used until 1978 contained lead. Paints contained mercury until 1990. These heavy metals were used to improve flow, durability, flexibility and ironically, to improve resistance to fire damage and moisture. When plastic is burned it also releases toxic chemical fumes (like dioxins, furans and styrene gas) into the air that are really bad for both humans and the environment.

Burning can release toxics into air and soil

According to health scientists, burning wood and other materials coated with paint containing PCBs, Lead, Mercury and other heavy metals results in exponentially higher exposure to those harmful chemicals.

An even greater concern is the danger of exposure to Dioxins and Furans, which are produced when PCBs are burned at lower temperatures. Old stains can also contain toxic ingredients. Some new paints include ingredients which should never be burned. Paints containing Teflon produce a very hazardous gas if burned.

Lead

Lead affects practically all systems within the body. At high levels it can cause convulsions, coma, and even death. Lower levels of lead can adversely affect the brain, central nervous system, blood cells, and kidneys.
The effects of lead exposure on fetuses and young children can be severe. Effects include delays in physical and mental development, lower IQ levels, shortened attention spans, and increased behavioral problems.

Children are most at risk

Fetuses, infants, and children are more vulnerable to lead exposure than adults. Lead is more easily absorbed into growing bodies, and the tissues of small children are more sensitive to the damaging effects of lead. Compounding the problem, children have higher exposures since they are more likely to get lead dust on their hands, then put their fingers or other lead-contaminated objects into their mouths.

Paradise Camp Fire
Paradise Fire Aftermath

Get your child tested for lead exposure. To find out where to do this, call your doctor or local health clinic. For more information on health effects, get a copy of the Centers for Disease Control’s, Preventing Lead Poisoning in Young Children (October 1991).

Summary

If you are in or near the affected area, by all means take precautions to filter your breathing air. This is serious stuff and lord knows what the long-term ramifications are going to be. We are all part of this disaster.