Before we start lighting random materials ablaze, there is some information that I feel I’m obligated to share with you all about safety. After all, fire is dangerous and, once it gets out of control, can swiftly and effortlessly devastate, if not destroy, your life. So, in the interests of keeping anyone from accidentally immolating themselves or burning down homes over the next few tutorials, let’s talk about how fire works and how to keep it contained.
How fire works:
Fire itself is, according to the folks at Merriam-Webster, “the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat.” Basically, an extremely fast exothermic oxidation reaction. Like any other chemical reaction, fire requires several ingredients (reactants and proper conditions) before the reaction can occur.
- Fuel – Combustible materials to be oxidized and feed the reaction. Paper, wood, wax, oil, butane, gasoline, ect. Things that burn.
- An oxidizing agent – In almost every case, this is ever-present atmospheric oxygen (O2).
- Heat – Fire needs an initial input of energy, called activation energy, to trigger the reaction. This is usually generated by a spark or heat from extreme friction, as in lighters and matches. The heat starts a reaction only if it reaches or exceeds a specific temperature, called the flash point or autoignition temperature, which varies depending on the material being burned.
Once all three reactants are present in the proper stoichiometric ratios, the fire ignites.
It’s important to understand this because fire is a self-sustaining chain reaction as long as it has an adequate supply of its reactants. That’s why even a tiny fire can spread to engulf entire forests. So long as it has sufficient fuel, oxygen, and heat (self-produced, of course), the fire will not stop.
It’s that fact of chemistry that lets us control fire, because the flip side is if you remove any one of the three parts, the fire can no longer burn. That’s right, all you need to do to put out a fire is stop the reaction by denying it a reactant. Think about the three most common ways to control and extinguish fires.
- Water – Has a high specific heat, which means it can absorb enough heat away from the burning fuel to interrupt the reaction.
- Smothering – Throwing sand or baking soda onto flames excludes oxygen from the reaction, stopping it. The same can be done by enclosing a fire in an air-tight container where it will burn until it consumes all the oxygen. (This is how the villains always catch/beat the Human Torch. Remember?)
- Removing fuel – This is a little more difficult to do with burning wood or paper, but if you can remove the fuel source, the fire has nothing to burn and dies out. Isolating a fire to begin with works the same way. That’s why you build bonfires and campfires in open areas with no trees overhead, so the fire can’t jump from your controlled blaze to another source of fuel.
You can also increase the size and intensity of a fire by supplying reactants, either accidentally (dried flowers or drapes by a burning candle) or on purpose (fanning a campfire). Just be careful and aware of what you might be doing.
Identifying types of fire:
American fire safety standards organize fires into different classes depending on what sort of substance is burning and any hazards in the fire that would require unusual tactics to contain. (Ex: ‘Class C’ refers to electrical fires. These need to be fought with non-conductive agents because there is a live current present, so water and water-based foams aren’t used.) When you see fire extinguishers that say ‘rated for class A, B, and C fires’, this is what they’re talking about.
The reason I’m mentioning this is it’s important to be able to identify what type of fire you’ve dealing with so you know how to deal with it properly. The last thing you want is to attack a fire with the wrong method and make it worse. (For example, deal with an electrical fire wrong and you get to be electrocuted and on fire. I can think of better ways to spend an evening.)
A complete list is available, but for the projects I’ll be doing in this series there’s really only a risk of class A and B (K, actually) fires. Maybe D later on. Maybe.
Class A is ‘Ordinary Combustibles’ meaning wood, paper, fabric, ect. Nothing inherently dangerous (aside from the fact that it’s on fire) that can’t be beat with a liberal dousing of water. Think campfire.
Class B is ‘Flammable Liquids and Gases’ which includes gasoline, methane, propane, butane, alcohols, ect. These are more difficult to fight because you can’t use water. The oily nature of the fuels in these fires means that the burning gas/liquid will float on top of any water thrown at it. Trying to use water will only spread a class B fire by making this happen:
The safest way to put them out is by smothering. To that end, keep a lot of baking soda, a cookie sheet, or the lid to the pan or pot you’re using near by.
What I’m most worried about are kitchen/grease fires, which are classified as ‘K’ in the American system. They’re technically a subclass of class B so the same rules apply, there are just a few extra pointers. ‘Don’t panic.’ and, the more important of the two, ‘Don’t try to move the pot of flaming grease.’
No matter how steady you think your hands are or how imperative it seems to get the fire out of the house, don’t. Call 911 immediately and fight the fire where it is. If you try to pick up the grease fire and move it, you stand a good chance of accidentally splashing burning grease and spreading the flames around in your path and probably all over yourself as well. Which is bad.
(For the record, yes, I am trying to scare you. Or at least impress on everyone reading how dangerous these next few projects could potentially be if necessary precautions aren’t taken or poor judgment is used.)
And while it may not be your first resort, you can certainly save yourself a lot of trouble by keeping a functioning fire extinguisher in the house. A little bit of professional-grade preparation never hurt anyone.
Besides all that, you just need to exercise a little…
It’s not that hard.
- Keep your work area clear of flammable materials you don’t intend to burn.
- Don’t make the fire any bigger than it has to be. The larger a fire is, the more difficult it is to control.
- Don’t wear clothes that billow, drape, or have long sleeves. The looser clothing is, the easier it is for parts to accidentally drag into the flames.
- Don’t wear clothes made of synthetic fibers. They can melt and stick to your skin as they burn. Instead, wear natural fibers that just char. You’ll have more of a chance to quickly remove or extinguish them.
- Work in a well-ventilated area.
- Have all your materials, for both burning and extinguishing, close at hand.
And most important: Pay attention! Don’t leave any burning material unattended. Either stay and watch it or extinguish it, and even then make absolutely sure it’s actually out and cool before you go. In short, treat a fire just like a toddler. With pyrokinesis.
If you can do all that and keep your cool if anything untoward happens, you should be just fine. However, if things go horribly wrong, remember it’s okay to call 911. It’s better to have firefighters arrive and find nothing to fight than to have your whole house/neighborhood/municipality go up in flames.
Also, in case something goes wrong, let’s brush up on…
First aid for burns:
Seems like a good idea, right?
Burns are injuries caused by extreme exposure to an energy source (heat, light, radiation, electricity, ect.) and are described by how deep into the skin and underlying tissue the damage extends.
First degree burns are confined to the epidermis while second degree burns extend to the lower layers of dermis. These hurt, a lot. But that’s a good sign because third and fourth degree burns, which extend down to the muscle and bone, don’t. If you get a burn that doesn’t hurt, you need an ambulance immediately. In fact, for any burn larger than 3″ in diameter/the palm of your hand, go get medical help pronto.
- Cool the burn with cool (not cold) running water, or immersion if you have to. Don’t use cold water or ice, as they can do further harm to the tissues.
- Cover the burn loosely with gauze to exclude air and protect the skin. Be sure to make the wrappings loose to keep the pressure off the damaged skin.
- Take some aspirin. It reduces swelling in addition to cutting the pain.
- Watch it. Minor burns should heal on their own in a week or two. If it doesn’t, reddens, feels hot to the touch, or start swelling again it could be infected and you should see a doctor.
Also drink a lot of fluids.
Now then, I think I’ve covered all the important details. Keep this info in mind, act wisely, and good luck.
Let’s go light things on fire. (Safely.)