With Modern Furnishing, Homes Burn Faster

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"There's less compartmentation. It's beautiful for living, you have better air circulation," Madrzykowski said. "But when you think about it from a fire perspective, there's nothing to stop the smoke and toxic gases from spreading throughout that entire house."

Firefighter: Fires Are Hotter, Not Ventilating as Easily

Robert Leonard, a volunteer firefighter for more than 20 years and spokesman for the Firemen's Association of the State of New York, said that over the course of his career, he's seen new materials alter the flare-ups firefighters are called to put out.

"From the firefighter on the ground's standpoint, fires are hotter, they're burning probably more quickly ... [and] not ventilating as easily," he said.

Cheaper and lighter manufactured lumber (made of wood chips and shavings glued together) might be better for the builders. But, he said, they don't hold up in a fire as well as the 2-inch by 4-inch or 4-inch by 6-inch solid wooden beams that they replaced.

He also said the windows installed in many modern and newly renovated homes can complicate matters further.

Thermo pane windows may be more energy-efficient and insulating, but they also trap the heat when fires ignite indoors. And thick hurricane windows, which are built to resist high-velocity winds, can also prove resistant to the pry bars and axes firefighters often need to break into a burning building.

Residents Need to Act Fast When Facing Fire

In response, Leonard said, they've had to modify their tactics and training. Firefighters more carefully plan their entry into buildings and have become more aware of construction materials and designs in their area so they know different buildings' vulnerabilities.

"We've always had a coordinated attack but it's even more coordinated," he said. "There's a much more aggressive look at the timing of the fire."

Not all fires are of the extreme variety -- most fires take place in the kitchen and during times when residents are awake and able to extinguish them quickly. And when fires are starved of oxygen, they won't necessarily flashover in just three minutes.

But fire researchers warn that it's critical to maintain working smoke alarms and even consider installing residential sprinkler systems.

And ultimately, when a fire starts, experts say residents need to act as fast as they can before firefighters arrive.

"If occupants are not out of their buildings within two to three minutes of the alarms going off, then they may never actually get out," said Russ Thomas, director of fire research at the National Research Council in Canada. "The real secret is, when the alarms go off, get out."

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