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Up in smoke: The bad oil

The burnt remains of a house on Masterton’s Albert St. PHOTOS/GEORGE SHIERS

It might sound like an urban legend borne out of Hollywood, but spontaneous combustion is a genuine threat that can destroy buildings in the blink of an eye.

The investigation into a house fire on Masterton’s Albert St found the phenomenon behind the destruction.

The home, a 1920’s weatherboard villa, was gutted in June, the inferno leaving only the front facade.

The culprit: An oil-stained rag in the laundry. Fire and Emergency [FENZ] investigator Peter Fox said the evidence indicated the fire was accidental.

“The cause of this fire is believed to be spontaneous combustion of cleaning materials, based on the evidence available at the time of the investigation.

“All other ignition sources both internal and external of the residence were investigated and there were no signs present at the point of origin that could have been associated or considered a source of this incident.”

Fox said the type of oil responsible appeared to be from a cleaning product.

“The owner of the property was interviewed. During the interview, it was revealed they had been cleaning the house prior to the fire with a cleaning agent consisting of grapeseed oil and white vinegar.

“The cleaning rags upon completion were deposited in a container adjacent to the washing machine in the laundry.

“Also in the laundry was an electric heater on thermostat controls to keep the area warm.”

The devastating fire, which started at 1am and took almost six hours for crews to extinguish, was only the latest in a series of spontaneous combustions to light up the region this year.

In January, a rag soaked in linseed oil caught fire and completely ravaged a Martinborough shed, destroying the building and all its contents. A second incident in Masterton in May had a rubbish pile catch alight after someone oil-stained walls and deposited the rags in a bin.

FENZ community risk manager Phil Soal said fires caused by spontaneous combustion were not as uncommon as people might think.

“Over the past year, there has been one house fire in Wairarapa and 35 house fires nationally caused by spontaneous combustion. There have also been two other fires in Wairarapa that were caused by spontaneous combustion.”

Soal said spontaneous combustion was a risk with rags, clothing, and towels, which had been contaminated with oils.

Fibres, particularly organic ones such as cotton, when contaminated with oil, can be at risk of self-heating and spontaneously combusting.

“The drying process of oily rags causes a chemical reaction which generates heat and can ignite the rags it is on.

“It can take many hours before ignition occurs.”

Soal said there were numerous precautions to reduce the risk of spontaneous combustion.

He said people should place rags in metal containers with close-fitting lids and store them away from houses and combustible materials.

Rags with linseed oil should be allowed to dry in a completely safe place, such as on the driveway.

When washing, rags should be washed in hot water with detergent, be allowed to dry thoroughly and ensure they have returned to normal temperature before storing.

George Shiers
George Shiers
George Shiers is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age interested in politics and social issues. He reports regularly on a range of topics including infrastructure, housing, and transport. George is also the Tararua reporter and helps cover police, fire and court stories.

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