Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/March 1879/Fires and their Causes

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THE oft-repeated words, "Cause unknown," appended to the daily reports of the conflagrations which occur all over the country, furnish matter for grave reflection. A glance at the report of one of the largest fire brigades will show us that the causes (when ascertained) are of the most varied description. It appears that the candle is the most destructive weapon to be found in an ordinary household, for conflagrations lighted by its help far outnumber those credited to any other cause. Curtains come next on the black list. The next large figures are given to "Spark from fire," followed by "Foul flues." Next in order may be noticed "Gas," "Children playing with fire," "Tobacco-smoking," "Spontaneous ignition," and lastly "Incendiarism."

There is no doubt that many a fire owes its origin to causes quite beyond the control of the tenant of the house in which it occurs, and that the scamping manner in which builders' work is often done is the prime cause of many a fire which is put down as unaccounted for. The ends of joists are left protruding into chimneys, or a thin hearthstone is set upon a bed of timber. In both cases the wood becomes so dry and hot that it is ready to take fire from the first spark that settles near it. Overheated flues represent a source of danger which is also attributable to the careless builder; for, if the flue were so placed that its hear could not affect adjacent woodwork, it would be always as safe when hot as when cold. It is true that by act of Parliament builders are obliged to preserve a certain distance between flues and timber; but surveyors can not always reckon on their instructions being carried out, and cases are unfortunately rare nowadays where workmen will do their duty in such matters without constant supervision. Lath-and plaster divisions between houses are also illegal; but buildings, and more especially warehouses, are now of such vast extent that they really represent aggregations of small houses in which the act of Parliament concerning party-walls becomes a dead-letter.

Among the ascertained causes of fire are those which occur in the various workshops where hazardous trades are carried on. These naturally show an increase since steam-power has become such a universal aid to nearly every kind of human labor; necessitating furnaces which remain kindled for weeks or months together. Apart from this source of risk, there are numerous trades where such inflammables as turpentine, naphtha, spirits of wine, and combinations of them in the form of varnishes, are in daily use to a very large extent. The familiarity which such constant use provokes breeds a contempt which often resolves itself into a negligence almost criminal in its nature. Drying-stoves afford another dangerous item in the list of fires connected with the trades; japanners, cabinet-makers, and hosts of others using such stoves as a necessity of their business. Hot-water pipes for heating purposes also represent the cause of a large number of fires, the most dangerous kind being those which are charged with water and hermetically sealed. The reason of this is easily explained. Water boils at a temperature far below that necessary to ignite woodwork; but, when confined in such pipes as we have described, it will rise in temperature to an extent only measured by the strength of the material which holds it. A soft metal plug is sometimes inserted in these pipes, so that, should any unusual degree of heat be approached, it will melt out, and thus relieve the pressure; but such a good precaution is by no means universal.

The pipes which are used for carrying off heated air, and which are placed above gas-burners, are too often allowed to pass between the ceiling and the floor above without any regard to the obvious danger incurred. The various close stoves which were introduced to public notice at the time when the price of coal was suddenly doubled, although no doubt economical, are not so safe as the old form of kitchen range, which many a careful housewife has likened to a cavern. The whole of the air which rises through the flue of a closed stove actually passes through the fire, and thus attains a very exalted temperature. In the old stoves, on the other hand, the hot air is always largely diluted with that which is attracted to the chimney from all quarters. It is evident, therefore, that the chances of fire in the flue of the former are much greater than in that of the latter.

Theatres may be said to combine within their walls all the risks which we have as yet alluded to, for they represent factories where work of a most diversified kind is carried on, and where both open and closed fires are in constant use. At pantomime time especially, the number of persons employed in the various workshops of large theatre is to the uninitiated quite marvelous. Carpenters and "property-men" (those clever workmen who can make everything from a bunch of carrots to a parish pump) represent a constant source of danger from fire, in that they deal with inflammable material, and require the aid of heat for their size and glue. It is obviously important in a little kingdom where all is make-believe—where the most solid masonry is wood and canvas, where the greenest trees are dry as tinder, where even limpid streams are flimsy muslin, nay, where the moon itself is but a piece of oiled calico—that there should be no mistake about the reality of the precautions against accidental fire. In most theatres, rules are in force of the most stringent character, extending even to such details as clearing so many times a day the accumulated shavings from the carpenter's shops. If such a sensible law were enforced in other places besides theatres, it would be a preventive measure of very great value.

Shavings are perhaps the most dangerously inflammable things to be found about a building. A block of wood is a difficult thing to set on fire; but, when reduced to the form of shavings, a mere spark will turn it into a roaring fire. The same thing may be said in a minor degree of a lump of iron, which when reduced to filings can be burned in the flame of a common candle. It is often this difference of bulk which will decide whether a material is practically inflammable or not. Paper affords another example of the same principle: tied tightly in bundles it may smolder, while in loose sheets its inflammability is evident.

It is stated upon good authority that in one third of the number of fires which occur the cause is not ascertained. The plan long ago adopted in New York, and which has led to a sensible diminution in the number of fires there, has not, for some reason, found favor with the authorities in this country. We allude to the custom of convening a coroner's court to inquire into the origin of every fire which takes place. There is little doubt that such inquiries would educate thoughtful householders into taking precautions which might not otherwise strike them as being at all necessary. The importance of such precautions is manifest when we learn that in London alone there are on the average three fires in every twenty-four hours. If this wholesale destruction were reported of an Eastern city, where the houses are of wood, and are sun-dried by incessant tropical heat, there would be some excuse for it. But here at home, where bricks and mortar are so common, it is certainly astonishing that fires should be so prevalent.

It would seem that it is a much easier task to set an entire house on fire than it is with deliberate intention, and with proper combustibles to light a stove for the purpose of boiling a kettle. This latter operation is not so simple as it appears to be, as any one may prove who has not already tried his or her hand at it. In fact, an efficient or bad house-servant may be almost at once detected by the ease or difficulty with which she lights her fires. The inefficient servant will place some crumpled paper in the grate, and will throw the best part of a bundle of wood on the top of it, crowning the whole with a smothering mass of coal; and will expect the fire to burn. The good servant will, on the other hand, first clear her grate, so as to insure a good draught; she will then place the wood above the paper, crossing the sticks again, and again; then the coals are put in deftly one by one, affording interstices through which the flames will love to linger; a light is applied; and the kettle will soon be singing acknowledgments of the warm ardor with which it has been wooed. Contrast this with the other picture, where double the fuel is wasted, and where smoke and dirt make their appearance in lieu of tea and toast. We venture to say that a badly managed kitchen fire, with its train of unpunctual meals, leads to more general loss of temper than all the other minor domestic troubles put together. The stove is usually the scapegoat on which the offending servant lays her incompetence (the cat clearly could establish an alibi); but the most perfect of ranges would not remedy the fault. The only real reason for such a state of things is the prevalence of sheer stupidity. Molly's mother was taught by Molly's grandmother to light a fire in a certain way, and Molly's descendants will, from persistence of habit, continue to Light fires in that manner, be it good or evil, until the end of time. It is quite clear that the same stupidity which causes an intentional fire to fail will occasionally lead to a pyrotechnic exhibition which has been quite unlooked for. For instance, cases are not unknown where servants have used the contents of a powder-horn for coaxing an obstinate fire to burn; the loss of a finger or two generally giving them sufficient hint not to repeat the experiment.

The general use of gas has done much to reduce the number of conflagrations, for it has replaced other illuminators far more dangerous; but it has at the same time contributed a cause of accident which before its use could not exist. So long as people will insist on looking for an escape of gas with a lighted candle, so long will their rashness be rewarded with an explosion. It is not customary, where there is a doubt as to whether a cask contains gunpowder or not, to insert a red-hot poker into the bung-hole. Yet such a proceeding would be scarcely less foolhardy than the detection of the presence of gas by means of flame. The test in both cases is most thorough, but it is too energetic in its action to be of any value but to those who wish to rise in the world too suddenly.

Drunkenness is a well-known source of burned-out dwellings, the habitual tippler being too often left to his own devices in the matter of matches and candles. The usual faculty of double vision with which an inebriated man is gifted leads to a divided claim upon the extinguisher, which naturally points to a disastrous sequel. Even sober people will be guilty of the most hazardous habits, such as novel-reading in bed with a candle placed near them on a chair; for novels, like some other graver compositions, are occasionally apt to induce slumber; and the first movement of the careless sleeper may imperil his life, as well as the lives of others who may be under the same roof with him.

The caprices of female dress have also often led to fatal accidents from fire, and crinoline skirts had in their day much to answer for. But at the present time petticoats seem to have shrunk in volume to the more moderate dimensions of an ordinary sack, so that we are not likely to hear of accidents from this particular cause until some fresh enormity is perpetrated in the name of fashion. We may mention in this connection that tungstate of soda (a cheap salt) will render muslins, etc., uninflammable. But strange to say it is not generally adopted, even on the stage, where the risks are so multiplied, because it is said to prevent the starch drying with due stiffness! We have all heard of what female courage is capable when little ones are in danger, but we hardly thought that it was equal to the task of risking precious life for the appearance of a muslin dress. We can only bow, and say—nothing.

Where fires have been traced to spontaneous combustion, it has generally been found that some kind of decomposing vegetable matter has been the active instrument in their production. Cotton-waste which has been used for cleaning oily machinery and then thrown aside in some forgotten corner, sawdust on which vegetable oil has been spilt, and hemp, have each in its turn been convicted of incendiarism. The simple remedy is, to avoid the accumulation of lumber and rubbish in places where valuable goods and still more valuable lives are at stake. Occasionally fires have been accidentally caused by the concentration of the sun's rays by means of a lens or of a globe of water, and opticians have for this reason to be very careful in the arrangement of their shop windows. A case lately occurred where a fire was occasioned, it was supposed, by a carafe of water that stood on the center of a table. The sun's rays had turned it into a burning-glass! It is stated, with what amount of truth we can not say, that fires in tropical forests are sometimes caused by the heavy dewdrops attached to the foliage acting the part of lenses.

The advance which has been made during the last twenty years in all appliances connected with the art of extinguishing fires has done much to limit or rather localize the dangers of such catastrophes; for, whereas in the old days the lumbering "parish squirt" was the only means of defense, we have now in all large towns steam fire-engines capable of throwing an immense stream of water with force enough to reach the topmost floors of very high buildings. The aforesaid "squirt" was capable of little more than wetting the outside of contiguous buildings, with a view to prevent the spread of the original fire, which generally burned itself out. But now our engines furnish a power which will often smother a large fire in the course of half an hour or less. Moreover, our well-organized fire brigades are trained to convey the hose to the nucleus of the flames, and much heroism is shown in the carrying out of this dangerous duty.

And now for a few simple precautions.

Let some member of the family visit every portion of the house before it is shut up for the night. (While he is seeing to the safety of the fires and lights, he can also give an eye to bolts and bars, and thus fulfill another most necessary precaution.) See that there is no glimmering of light beneath the bedroom doors for any unreasonable time after the inmates have retired to rest. Insist on ascertaining the cause of any smell of burning. It may be only a piece of rag safely smoldering in a grate, but satisfy yourself upon the point without delay. Do not rake out a fire at night, but allow it to burn itself out in the grate. (We have already referred to the danger of hearthstones set upon timber.) Do not allow an unused fireplace to be closed up with a screen unless it is first ascertained that there is no collection of soot in the chimney, and no communication with any other flue from which a spark may come. Caution servants not to throw hot ashes into the dust-bin. Let the slightest escape of gas be remedied as soon as possible, and remember that the common form of telescope gasalier requires water at certain intervals, or it will become a source of danger. Finally, forbid all kinds of petroleum and benzoline lamps to be trimmed except by daylight. (A lamp was the initial cause of the great Chicago fire.)

Many other precautions will suggest themselves to the careful housekeeper. But, after all, the best precaution is common sense, which, however, is the least available, being the misnomer for a faculty which is far from common.—Chambers's Journal.