Now for Something a Little Different
Did I ever tell you that I used to be in fire protection?
Technically I have an advanced degree in Fire Protection Engineering Technology and five years experience as a fire sprinkler system designer, job estimator, and overall project manager.
But, that time of my life has passed and I don't do any of those things anymore. I've moved on to other things and another career and now the knowledge of the industry is mostly useless to me. But I still have the knowledge, and some of it is actually quite interesting.
So in order to give it some meaning to me I'm going to share some of that knowledge with you through a series of anecdotal fire related stories. Both narratives are true as they were told to me but I wrote them in a way to make them interesting and I altered one slightly for storytelling effect which I will clarify at the end of the post.
So without further ado, I give you, A Tale of Two Fires (credit to my wife for coming up with the title).
Chapter One: A Lesson in Fuel to Air Ratios
I once heard this story about a man that tried to commit suicide by setting his house on fire. He unscrewed the natural gas line of his fireplace and allowed the gas to fill up the room. I guess he wanted to blow up the house while he was still inside.
Did you know that in order for a gaseous substance to ignite and burn it needs to be mixed with a specific amount of air? This is known as the air to fuel ratio. The amount of air required for a substance to burn is different for all gases and the amount really just depends on the chemical makeup of the specific type of fuel. For natural gas the air to fuel ratio is 9.4 - 11.0 cubic feet of air per one cubic foot of fuel.
I don’t know how long it takes a room, or a house for that matter, to fill up with gas to the point where it can be ignited. I don’t think the guy in this story knew either, because at some point while he was waiting for the gas and the air to reach their critical ratio he got bored and decided to have a cigarette. Maybe he forgot what he was doing or maybe he just wasn’t thinking? Maybe he just wanted to smoke one last cigarette before he died?
Anyway, when the man sparked the lighter to lite the cigarette, the room fucking exploded.
It basically reduced the house to a pile of rubble.
Here’s the funny part of the story though. The man survived. He actually fucking survived.
When an explosion occurs it radiates outwards from its center and because the man had been the one to ignite the fuel he was at the exact epicenter of the explosion. The fireball and shock wave moved outward and away from him in all directions leaving him relatively unscathed.
It sounds like a cartoon skit. Fucking crazy right?
Lucky bastard. Or maybe not so lucky.
I guess it really depends on how much he wanted to die?
Chapter Two: A Lesson in the Three Elements of Combustion
Okay, here is another one.
I once heard a story about a man who tried to burn down his home in order to collect the insurance money on the house. He was seen walking through his front door by a neighbor across the street carrying two jerrycans full of gasoline, one in each hand. The neighbor might have been on lunch that day or maybe he was retired and working in the yard when this all happened?
Anyway, the man poured the entire contents of the jerrycans onto the floor of his master bedroom along with the bed and the walls. Then he lit the whole thing on fire, shut the door and got the hell out of there. He probably headed off back to work or to a coffee shop or something, in order to create an alibi for himself. To be honest I don’t actually know the finer details of that part of the story. He probably also sat there nervously waiting for his phone to ring. The cops or the fire department would surely be calling him to let him know that his house had just burnt down.
Did you know that fire needs three ingredients in order to maintain combustion? Well, actually there are technically four ingredients but I don’t want to get into the chain reaction aspect of fire. So anyway, the three basic ingredients are sometimes referred to as the three elements of combustion or more simply as the fire triangle. The three ingredients are basically what you would expect: fuel, an oxidizer (usually oxygen) and heat. If any one of these three elements are removed from the combustion process then the fire cannot sustain itself and will eventually go out.
The key element to this story is that the guy happened to shut the door to the bedroom before leaving. Maybe it was out of habit or maybe he was trying to create a barrier between himself and the fire? Maybe he thought that the fire would want some privacy to do its job effectively? Most likely he just wasn’t aware of the the three elements of combustion. Either way this seemingly small infraction was enough to put an end to his dream of committing insurance fraud.
Although the gasoline burned rapidly and ferociously for several minutes, all but destroying the carpet and bedspread and leaving some nasty burn marks on the walls, it actually extinguished itself fairly quickly. The fire had consumed all of the oxygen in the room and since the door to the bedroom was shut it wasn’t able to replenish itself.
In the end the fire did very little damage to the home overall.
So although the man was unsuccessful in burning down his house that day, maybe it was for the best. The neighbor didn’t end up reporting what he saw to the police and the man was never charged with insurance fraud.
Maybe it was a happy ending?
A Final Word for Clarity
I mentioned at the beginning of the post that these stories were true but that I altered the second one slightly. The truth of the story was that although the fire did extinguish itself because the man had shut the door, he did nonetheless put through an insurance claim for the damage done to the bedroom. He was held up in courts because of the eye witness having seen him with the gas cans but ultimately the insurance company did pay him his money. Ultimately it was a "he said" - "he said" type situation.