With Modern Furnishing, Homes Burn Faster

VIDEO: Eight people are dead after an abandoned warehouse went up in flames.
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Want to know how much time it can take for a fire to ignite an entire room?

As little as 166 seconds.

In a study conducted last summer by the Worcester Polytechnic Institute's (WPI) Fire Protection Engineering department, researchers set fire to a fully furnished 12-foot by 16-foot room to see how long it would take to achieve flashover, or the point at which all combustible material in a space catches fire.

They constructed a room according to building regulations and furnished it like any modern family might -- with wall-to-wall carpeting, a big, comfy couch, flowing curtains and all. But after setting fire to one part of the room, the researchers watched everything in the room go up in flames in less than three minutes.

"It is scary. This isn't even as stuffed as a real living room would be," said Kathy Notarianni, a professor in the Fire Protection Engingeering at WPI and one of the study's lead researchers. "That living room was sparsely furnished compared to an average living room."

But 30 years ago, the average living room wouldn't catch fire nearly as fast.

Modern Family Homes Are Bigger, Full of 'Fuel'

Thanks to the extra belongings that we cram into our homes and the synthetic materials our things are made of, researchers say, our homes are burning down faster than ever before.

And even beyond the stuff that fills our homes, firefighters say the cheaper, energy-efficient materials used to build our homes can make firefighting even more dangerous.

"Materials have changed," Notarianni said. "Think of the sofa in your grandmother's house and think of the sofa in your house. Your sofa is much bigger, it's full of stuffing, it's comfier, probably. … That comfy-ness is new materials that burn differently, release different chemicals, release different toxic gases."

Thirty years ago, products were made of natural fibers and solid wood. Now, our belongings are made of plastics and synthetic materials.

Not only that, but the sheer volume of things we own has grown tremendously, she said.

"Our houses are stuffed. We don't have one TV, we have four or five TVs," she said. "The kids have more clothes, more toys, more plastic toys. ... You used to get a couple of toys a year, now you get a couple of toys a week."

But when fire strikes, all our favorite things become fuel.

Wider, More Open Homes Facilitate the Spread of Fire

In the 1970s, a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) study found that people have 17 minutes to escape a fire after their smoke alarm goes off. But when the institute repeated the study in 2004, it found that the escape window had shrunk to just three minutes.

"What's different now is we have houses that are getting larger," said Dan Madrzykowski, a fire protection engineer in NIST's engineering laboratory. "And during the past 50 years, we've introduced a lot of synthetics into the home."

Not only are people fitting more so-called fuel into their expanding homes, he said, they're designing homes that make it easier for oxygen, which fires need to survive, to spread.

Traditional ranch- or Cape Cod-style homes featured smaller, separated rooms. But, nowadays, he said, it's not unusual to find single-family homes with wide, open spaces that extend from one end of a home to the other.

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