Why today's house fires burn faster, hotter in burbs

Suburban homes can burn faster: New materials make firefighters change tactics

Seventeen-year-old Gabino Catalan awoke on a foggy Sunday morning to his mother's pounding on his bedroom door: Their Carpentersville house was on fire.

Gabino left his bedroom and called 911, but the line was dead.

Returning to his room, his mattress was engulfed in flames.

“It was a matter of a minute - probably less than that,” says Gabino's sister, Minerva Catalan. “If he wouldn't have left his room when he did, he would've been gone.”

The ferocity of the August fire that destroyed the family's home of more than 20 years and most of their belongings stands out to Fire Chief John Skillman. It was aggressive and produced copious black smoke - behavior that fire experts say is common with modern residential fires.

The number of house fires that occur nationally has been on a slow decline, but they burn faster, hotter and more dangerously than ever before, said John Drengenberg, consumer safety director at Northbrook-based Underwriters Laboratories.

In the 1970s, a person had an average of 17 minutes to escape after a smoke alarm went off before conditions became too dangerous to survive, he said. Now, that number has dropped to three to four minutes.

“It's a very scary statistic,” Drengenberg said. “Today, when that alarm sounds, your job is to start doing your escape plan.”

Fueling the fire

Trends in home construction are among several reasons for the intensity of fires. For instance, Drengenberg said, home improvement television shows highlight popular “open concept” floor plans. Parents, too, like being able to see their kids playing in the living room from the kitchen.

  Gabino Catalan, left, and other family members narrowly escaped the fast-burning fire that consumed their Carpentersville house in August. John Starks/

But large amounts of open space mean more air to fuel a fire.

Additionally, said Kevin Switzer, manager of the fire prevention division in the state fire marshal's office, when walls no longer separate rooms, fires are not contained and they spread more quickly.

“Compartmentalization is one of the first tenets of fire protection,” he said. “If a fire starts in one compartment, it's contained there by walls and doors and things. If you can slam a door on a fire, you'd be doing everyone a great service.”

In a series of UL experiments, researchers studied how quickly rooms with today's materials burn compared to “legacy” rooms, those with furnishings and building materials from the mid-20th century - wood, cotton, wool and fur.

Every time, the modern room took less than five minutes to reach “flashover” - the point at which everything in the room is burning. The earliest flashover time in a legacy room was 29 minutes.

Furniture and fabrics in modern homes are made with more synthetic materials than in the past, Drengenberg said. Almost all carpeting has a synthetic backing. Drapes contain synthetic blends. Pillows once stuffed with feathers are now made with polyurethane foam and synthetic material, as are mattresses and cushions.

Plastic is used to make synthetic materials, and when it catches on fire, Drengenberg said, it spreads nearly as quickly as gasoline.

  Gabino Catalan stands on the rear deck of his Carpentersville home that burned in August. John Starks/

Switzer said it also produces thick, dark smoke full of chemicals released from the synthetic materials. That toxic environment is deadly and can kill residents before the heat or the fire itself even reaches them, he said.

Still, house fire deaths have declined nationally, likely because of improved fire safety awareness and fewer overall fire occurrences, according to the National Fire Protection Association. There were 2,745 house fire deaths in the United States last year - a 53 percent decline since 1977.

However, NFPA also reported the death rate per 1,000 house fires has remained fairly steady, at 8.1 in 1977 and 7.5 in 2014. This means that if a fire occurs, the risk of dying in a house fire has not significantly diminished.

“A legacy room with older materials still burns; it's not fireproof. But it gives you ample time to get out,” Drengenberg said. “That's a big deal. There's nothing better than knowing that everyone is safe.”

Risk to firefighters

Modern house fires have become more dangerous not only for occupants but also for firefighters, experts say.

This largely is due to lightweight construction and, in particular, engineered lumber made from wood chips, sawdust and glue.

“It's stronger than real lumber, it's less expensive, it's easy to work with,” Drengenberg said, noting that it's used in 65 percent of new construction. “But in a fire situation, it burns faster and puts firefighters in real danger.”

Also, lightweight construction doesn't give much warning before collapsing.

Once a common firefighting tactic, studies now suggest extinguishing residential fires from rooftops can be more dangerous for firefighters. FILE PHOTO

Accordingly, Hoffman Estates fire crews now avoid fighting house fires from the roof, following a suggestion from UL, Fire Chief Jeff Jorian said.

Fire crews used to fight fires from the inside out, said Dwayne Wood, training division chief at the Arlington Heights Fire Department. Now, he is teaching firefighters to attack a fire from the outside to drop the temperatures inside the home.

Wood learned these new techniques at a modern fire behavior course held by the Illinois Society of Fire Service Instructors.

“It starts with a lot of basic science and understanding and moves into basic tactics you should employ,” he said. “It's been a major change throughout the fire service. It's an exciting time to be a fireman.”

Home improvements

Just because fires typically burn faster in modern homes doesn't mean older homes are safer, Switzer said. Before nationally recognized fire code and safety standards were set and enforced, homes often were built without multiple escape routes from each room. Older homes also have wiring that is more likely to fray, which can be a fire hazard.

Homes nowadays are equipped with better fire prevention devices, such as newer smoke detector systems and sprinkler systems.

In 2000, Hoffman Estates officials adopted an ordinance requiring all new home construction be equipped with fire suppression sprinkler systems, Jorian said. There are now 1,000 homes in the village with residential sprinklers - second in the state behind Long Grove's 1,200 homes.

“Sprinkler systems are going to be there to initiate control of any fire within a home,” Jorian said. “Then we're just coming there to finish the job and make sure it hasn't extended anywhere beyond that.”

Last year, Hoffman Estates firefighters responded to a garage fire so severe that it melted the wall between the house and the garage and started entering the kitchen. There, two sprinklers kept the fire from advancing.

“If those sprinklers weren't there, it would've taken off inside the home and really done a lot of damage,” Jorian said.

Most fire departments will offer a free home safety inspection, and some even give away donated smoke detectors.

“It's important to practice an escape plan from their house, so if they do have an incident - a fire - the family knows exactly what to do,” Jorian said. “It's really just about being cognizant of what the dangers are and where the hazards are.”

'They lost everything'

Efrain Catalan returned to his home on Monroe Avenue a month after the fire destroyed it.

  The hallway and doorway to the bedroom of Gabino Catalan in his Carpentersville home that burned in August. John Starks/

Sitting outside was a giant garbage bin, where 22 years' worth of belongings - 22 years' worth of memories of his wife and four kids - were being tossed into the trash.

“My dad has two jobs,” his daughter Minerva Catalan said. “He works so hard to try to keep his family comfortable. For him to lose everything in a matter of 15 minutes - it's a horrible, horrible feeling.”

The cause of the fire remains unknown; possibly a grill on the back porch, possibly electrical.

Meanwhile, the Catalans moved into a rental home. Community members donated clothing and some household items. Minerva pitched in by handling piles of paperwork while juggling a job, a newborn and her other three children.

Gabino started his senior year at Dundee-Crown High School without his new gym shoes, backpack, soccer cleats or school supplies. They had been burned, and even the household items that weren't on fire had too much smoke damage to be salvaged.

But Minerva Catalan said it could have been worse. Had her family slept in that day, had Gabino not gotten out of bed when he did, had her mother not noticed the flames, they might not have made it out safely.

“It's been really hard. They lost everything, and it still hurts,” Minerva said. “But at least we didn't lose anybody. It just goes to show that we need to value the little time we have together and appreciate everything we have left.”

How to prevent house fires this holiday season

Why house fires spread faster

• Open floor plans eliminate fire compartmentalization.

• Large homes leave more void space and air between walls and floors.

• Synthetic materials are used more frequently in modern household items: carpeting, drapes, pillows, mattresses, cushions, clothing.

• Furniture is created with more synthetic blends instead of pure wood, cotton and wool.

• Lightweight construction collapses quicker without much warning.

• Engineered lumber, made from wood chips, sawdust and glue, is used in 65 percent of new construction and burns faster than regular lumber.

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