Faster Fires: Why your home could burn 8x faster

An ABC 7 I-Team Investigation

Jason Knowles Image
Friday, October 3, 2014
Why your home could burn eight times faster
Modern construction materials in homes and furnitures mean house fires burn much faster and hotter.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- You now only have about 3 minutes after the fire alarm goes off, to get out of your home safely. That time has dramatically dropped over the years -- it used to be 17 minutes.

These large open boxes were set up for the I-Team by the Alsip Fire Department. The one on the right is full of older or antique furniture, made of cotton, wool and down.

The room on the left is a typical a home with newer, synthetic furniture made with chemicals like polyurethane and hydro-carbons.

Firefighters and other safety experts lit both rooms at the same time using a candle. In just one minute and thirty seconds, flames raged through the newer furnishings in what firefighters call a "flashover."

The old furniture burned slowly. It takes more than 13 minutes to "flashover."

"The products now-a-days are all synthetic," says Thomas Styczynski, Fire Chief Village of Alsip. "They are hydrocarbons, a solid form of gasoline if you will. They will ignite quicker, they give off different gasses. Besides carbon monoxide, they give off cyanide gases, all those which are toxic to humans."

And it's not just furniture causing faster fires. Research at Underwriter Laboratories in Northbrook has shown that the modern construction materials can put you at a higher risk.

"Lightweight construction uses laminated beams and trusses and under normal circumstances these are great," says contractor and TV show host Ron Hazelton. "But in fire they collapse much sooner than conventional wood."

Hazelton showed the I-Team two examples. The bigger piece of wood is solid and used in older construction. The other is many pieces of wood compressed together, with glue, found in newer homes.

"What happens with solid wood is it begins to burn from the outside in, so the outside may char but the interior of it the structural integrity is there so it tends to fail slowly and you know when it is going to go," Hazleton says. "This burns hotter and more quickly, and when it fails, it fails almost instantaneously."

In north suburban Winnetka, the Hunken family is rebuilding their home which was constructed in 1906. A toaster fire stuck in the "on" position started the blaze.

"If this was a new house it would have collapsed in and there would be nothing left," says Scott Hunken.

"The smell that was in the house wasn't a campfire smell; it was a chemical plastic smell. Things were sticky," says Noelle Hunken.

The only piece of furniture that was salvaged was this antique armoire.

But most people aren't going to buy all vintage furniture. Some residents are paying 2 percent more on new construction to install sprinklers. It's even more expensive to retrofit them in existing homes, but you can also be eligible for an insurance discount.

"You might be a little wet from the fire but you are out, not burned," says Thomas Lia of the Northern Illinois Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board

Don't want the extra cost? You can also change batteries every six months in working smoke detectors , organize furnishings so there is space and limit how many items you have, especially in smaller rooms

Firefighters also say you can keep doors closed as much as possible in your home. That will keep a fire from spreading quickly from room to room.

More than 90 communities in Illinois require sprinklers in new construction single family homes and townhomes, but that's not an option for most people so you need to be vigilant.

Check smoke detectors and make sure wiring, furnaces and appliances are working properly.