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Fire Explained: What is it and How Does it Spread?

Most home and business fires start within the building. For example, a smoldering cigarette dropped into a trash can full of paper could ignite into flames. If the fire is not extinguished while in this early phase, it could spread throughout the structure.

How do the flames spread beyond the confines of the trash can to the rest of the building? Learn more about this destructive force to help prevent it from damaging your home or business.

What is Fire?

Fire is a chemical process requiring three things to occur: oxygen, fuel and an ignition source. Without one of these factors, a fire can’t start or will burn itself out.

In all chemical processes, molecules rearrange themselves and energy is either absorbed or expelled. When a fire burns, a process called oxidation occurs, the same process that causes metal to rust. Oxidation is when oxygen atoms combine with carbon and hydrogen to form carbon dioxide and water. When metal rusts, the process happens very slowly, but when a fire burns, heat and energy is released very quickly.

The rate of oxidation is especially fast with fuel sources such as paper and wood. When heat can’t release faster than it’s created, combustion occurs. This is what creates the flame and heat we call fire. Smoke comprised of unburnt particles, evaporated water and carbon dioxide is also produced, though the cleaner the burning process, the less smoke you see.

How does Fire Spread?

Once started, a building fire is likely to spread until all fuel has been used up. This could have devastating consequences for your home or business. By understanding how fire spreads, you may be better equipped to extinguish it.

  • Chemicals and combustibles: When fire comes in contact with lab chemicals, household cleaners, paint and other chemicals, the fire burns hotter and more aggressively, encouraging it to spread. Other combustibles commonly found in the home include mattresses, sofa cushions, magazines, newspapers and various textiles.
  • Open space: A building with limited interior structure burns much faster than one with hallways and closed doors. Walls and doors trap the fire and prevent the flames and smoke from spreading. While the fire will eventually burn through the structure and continue to spread if left to its own devices, a fire fighting team has a much easier time dousing the flames in a building with more walls and doors, especially if those structures are built to withstand the heat and damage of a fire.
  • Construction materials: While a fire can burn through just about any modern building, fire resistive buildings made of concrete and steel curb the spread of fire better than wood frame homes.
  • Ventilation: Buildings with central heating or air conditioning have ductwork, which provides a way for flames and smoke to spread between floors of a building, even when the structure is comprised primarily of concrete and steel.
  • Water: In some cases, water is not the best fire extinguisher. Grease fires, for example, can actually spread faster when doused with water. A special fire extinguisher or baking soda should be used to suffocate and stop the spread of grease fires in the kitchen.

If your home or business has succumbed to the destructive forces of a rampaging fire, professional restoration services from Rainbow International® can help get your life back in order. Please contact us today to begin the recovery process.

Other articles related to fires and fire restoration:

Fireplaces: 7 Burn Practices to Increase Efficiency

Spark of Disaster: How to Prevent Electrical Fires

5 Action Steps to Take After a Fire