From Texas-sized 2 Tiny House For Three
or… How NOT To Make Shou Sugi Ban Siding (not that we were trying to make it anyway)
So, we nearly burned our tiny house down yesterday. Yes, really. I SO wish I was kidding right now, but I’m not.
Let me just get this out of the way right now: we know it was dumb, we know it was careless, we know it was our fault, and we know it was 100% preventable. Trust me when I say we get it and don’t need any more finger wagging type comments to remind us further of how stupid the fire-causing error was. So far 99.9% of people who’ve been commenting on the FB posts, etc have been graciously understanding and consoling – some even remarking, “that could’ve been me!” – but that 0.1% sure do know how to make us feel even smaller and incompetent than we already do. We aren’t painters, carpenters, building professionals, or even people who use hazardous chemicals of any kind on a regular basis, but we also know that this can happen to ANYONE, even professionals! As the daughter of someone who makes their living teaching people at chemical plants across the globe how to not go boom – and then helping them find out why they went boom if they ever do – it’s HIGHLY embarrassing to me personally that this happened, believe you me! Stuff like this is why OSHA exists and why I had a fancy jumping horse to ride growing up – hazmat knowledge is worth its weight in gold and is very critical to the safety of everyone. There’s not a dunce hat big enough to hide our shame. Trust.
So, please. please, please – be nice! I promise you we completely realize how incredibly stupid this situation was, but we also could have just kept it to ourselves and avoided any of the “tsk tsk” comments all together. We DIDN’T stay silent, though, because we think it’s a VERY important conversation to have, especially considering how many people, like us, are DIYing their tiny homes and aren’t professionals who work with combustible materials on a daily basis. Spontaneous combustion isn’t one of the more common causes of domestic fires (only about 14k of all the fires between 2005 and 2009 were classified as spontaneous combustion or chemical reaction related according to the NFPA – more on that later), but the fact is that is DOES HAPPEN enough to require warning labels stating as such. Even in the most diligent of circumstances accidents can happen, and our absentminded negligence just hastened it. Even though we read the instructions and followed the rules before the incident, all it took was one time of not being diligent in our clean-up duties for a bag full of stain-soaked paper towels to spontaneously combust and nearly burn our house to the ground. ONE. TIME.
My first thought on addressing this incident was to go back through all the Facebook posts and comments I left yesterday to just cut and paste together a recounting of everything that transpired. After having time to both reread everything and think back on the incident itself, I’ve concluded that it would be easier and likely more accurate for me to just start fresh from the beginning. As a primer, though, I do want you to watch the nine minute video I shot immediately after we had cleared all the debris out and were getting ready to head to the hardware store to replace the damaged items, buy sturdier metal cans for both trash and soaked rags, and buy materials needed to construct a “chemical shed” to store all the various paints, stains, and any other liquids or sprays – combustible or not – away from the tiny house. My emotions were raw, and there were so many other things I wanted to discuss about the incident that I just couldn’t get it all out in a short video. Hopefully this post will help to clarify some of those finer details for everyone.
So, there you have it. Thinking back there are actually a few important points that were left out and only became really apparent to us after having time to clear our heads and really think back on the preceding events that lead up to the fire. The short and skinny of the whole ordeal is that we were careless in disposing of a whole bunch of stain-soaked paper towels into a 50-gal trash bag we keep clamped between two studs hanging against the wall in the space where our stairs will eventually go. (There’s Problem #1) I had been staining corner trim and 90-ft of fascia boards with the Penofin Verde Ebony inside the house (and doing touch-ups outside as well), which I had all laid on out on the saw horses because of threats of rain for the day. I tossed the soaked paper towels into the trash bag as I went without a second thought. Brandy had to clean up a spill of the Natural after R.A.D kicked over a can that didn’t have its lid on tight enough, and he soaked up the mess with paper towels and tossed them into the trash bag as well. I’d also tossed three empty cans of spray paint in (painted the corrugated metal that will become the roof of the new window bump out), and Brandy had cleaned his hands and some tools with denatured alcohol and tossed those towels in the trash, too. That, my friends, is the perfect recipe for spontaneous combustion of drying, oil-soaked rags, and we absentmindedly created it!
We both know that the cans all warn about spontaneous combustion, but neither of us were thinking about it at all. (There’s Problem #2) Brandy was rushing to clean up and get back inside to make dinner, get the kiddo ready for bed, and finish a school assignment that was due that night. I wanted to head in with them because I’d reached a point in my own projects that would require Brandy’s wood-cutting skills (I’ll use a chop saw because it’s a fixed blade, but I lack the know-how to set up the wood to properly use the Skil saw without chopping off a limb in the process), so I quickly grabbed the various paint brushes we’d been using for the day and headed in to clean them. I was the last to leave by just a few minutes, but the important part was that I was the last one out. Even though we were both careless with those rags – distractedly thinking about work, school, the kiddo, dinner, the weather, what Dad was doing for Easter lunch, etc – I still feel like this was my fault because I didn’t take the time to stop and realize I needed to remove all those rags and toss them in the bucket we kept outside for them. It just never even crossed my mind, even though all the real rags I’d used outside the day before were hung separately out to dry in the breeze (a 2nd choice for drying oil-soaked rags, but certainly NOT the superior one) far away from the tiny house. Yup, Friday night we were both distracted, and that’s what led to this fire sometime between 7pm and roughly 10:30am Saturday morning when I went out to the house with R.A.D to get started on my projects while Brandy finished yet another school project.
The stain-soaked paper towels being bunched up together in a wad at the top of the trash bag with who-knows-what other kinds of suitable kindling sitting directly beneath them (wood and metal scraps, saw dust, plastic bits, broken screw/nails, etc and more I’m sure – let’s not forget the spray paint cans!) is what actually caused the fire to start. I’ll point out that ANY oil-based paint or stain can cause this reaction because of the way oil dries, not because of how toxic or not the product itself actually is. For example, our Penofin stain (both the Verde and Ultra Premium Red Label) uses Brazilian rosewood oil, and even though the Penofin Verde is a Zero-VOC “green” product, the oil it contains is STILL combustible and flammable. The simple explanation is that as the oil dries it produces heat, so the rags around it act like an insulator, which causes the temperature around the oil to rise more. If it gets hot enough, it will ignite and cause a fire. Here’s how the National Fire Protection Agency (the same agency that writes the NFPA 1192 codes used in RV manufacture) describes spontaneous combustion:
Spontaneous combustion is a byproduct of spontaneous heating, which occurs when a material increases in temperature without drawing heat from its surroundings. If the material reaches its ignition temperature, spontaneous ignition or combustion occurs. Examples of materials that are prone to spontaneous combustion include: oily rags, hay, and other agricultural products.
Paints and stains that are oil-based all contain various warning labels describing how to properly dispose of oil-soaked rags and warn of the dangers of spontaneous combustion for this reason. We didn’t ignore them intentionally; we just let outside distractions keep us from following basic safety protocols each and every time we used any of these stains. We had a bucket, albeit a plastic one formally housing pool chlorine powder we nicked from Dad, that we used to soak the actual fabric rags we’d been using from day one of staining the beetle kill back sides before we installed it. If I didn’t soak the rags in the bucket I would take them and hang them on the chain-link fence around the pool at least a foot apart from each other so the breeze would easily get to them on all sides. Friday I even went back around the outside of the tiny house to make sure my oil-soaked paper towels that I’d been dropping on the ground as I went were all collected and not left outside to bunch up around each other. Interestingly, they probably would have been safer blowing in the breeze than stuffed inside the trash bag that we should have also emptied that night anyway – oily rags or not – because it was nearly full. In hindsight I think the very disposable nature of paper towels – which we were using just because they were within easy reach – probably led us to subconsciously think they were just trash and, as such, belonged in the trash bag. (There’s Problem #3) After all, why would you want to keep a dirty paper towel? Needless to say, I bought a huge bag of reusable rags for any remaining projects, and we’ll reserve the paper towels anything NOT involving combustible liquids.
On top of that ridiculous oversight, Brandy had several pieces of scrap cedar and other wood propped up against the trash bag to get it out of the way. That stuff just begged to be ignited since it was in perfect bonfire position, yet it managed to only get charred instead. Also, since we’d had so much rain lately we’d been doing all our wood cutting inside the house and not being as diligent with sweeping the saw dust and wood scraps up as we were in the beginning of the house build. About half of the debris Brandy shoveled out yesterday was simple wood scrap waste – NOT ACCEPTABLE!! (There’s Problem #4) We realize in hindsight just how lucky we are that this fire wasn’t significantly worse and/or didn’t happen sooner with just the saw dust collection alone. Oh what, you don’t believe that dust alone can ignite and cause a fire? Well, I didn’t really either until I learned of the sugar plant (yes, SUGAR) explosion that happened a few years ago from an excessive accumulation of sugar dust igniting. Yes, JUST DUST. Check this out:
I think the biggest lesson we’ve learned through all this, besides needing to slow the eff down (There’s Problem #5) and focus on cleaning up better at the end of each day no matter what other matters need attention – is that we need to stop treating our house like a workshop. (There’s Problem #6) Because we’ve had such crazy weather over the winter we’ve been doing a lot of the work inside the house itself to stay out of the elements, but that creates a lot of unnecessary risk to the structure that will soon become our home. It’s one thing to have a big house where you’re renovating one room at a time and have lots of room to spread out to work, but when your entire house is the size of many people’s master closets… well, it just means the likelihood of something getting damaged accidentally increases with less room to maneuver around. We’ve tried not to hog any more of my dad’s backyard than necessary with our tools and projects, and we admit that it’s just been easier not to schlepp out the saw horses and various tools each day when we could be working outside. If we still want to have a house to live in, though, we MUST take the necessary steps to better protect it from any possible dangers, particularly that of fire from both the spontaneous combustion we KNOW can happen but also just from having so many flammable products stored inside the house itself. (There’s Problem #7)
Fact: fire needs oxygen to “live.” We actually think having all the windows in the tiny house closed when the fire broke out, in addition to having the unattached chimney already installed in the roof, is likely one reason the fire wasn’t worse. There was a limited amount of oxygen in the space and a great vent in the roof for all the gasses, heat, and maybe even flames to escape. It’s clear to us from the burn patterns (though we are certainly no fire experts here) that the fire burned fast and hot, but it didn’t have enough air to survive very long. There was certainly plenty of fuel from the wood framing of the house and many buckets of flammable stains and solvents lying around that could have easily “fed” the flames or caused secondary fires to break out, yet it only scorched that one big section of wall directly above the trash bag. The damages we found from end to end of the house were caused from the heat of the fire, not from actual contact with flames. That again points to a very hot, very fast fire that also went out very quickly. Small favors, I must say!
To help reduce the likelihood of any other chemical reaction fires, we’ve moved all the liquids in the house – not just the flammable ones – to a shed Brandy and I built using what would have been the bottom of the tongue-end storage shed before we decided it was too heavy. It’s almost 8ft long and already had metal flashing applied to its bottom, which in this case will help prevent moisture from rotting it out, so we took the 2×2 lumber we had to make a frame and clad it all with corrugated metal sheeting.
Brandy still has to make doors for it (it rained today, so he’ll wait for a dry day), but now we have a well ventilated, large shed to store anything that could potentially burst into flames or fuel an already burning fire. We also upgraded our rags bucket to a metal pail with a lid, and from now on ALL trash will be disposed of in our new metal can with locking lid. All three of these will be kept at a distance from the tiny house, and we will go back to hauling the saw horses and tools in and out of the house itself each day that we build.
I may try to find us a cheap 10×10 bottomless tent of some kind (I’d actually bought one and returned it because I’d finished the staining project before it arrived) to help give us a little cover from the elements, but we’ll just have to suck it up on rainy days and find other projects that won’t involve cutting or staining wood in the house itself. Like I said – we have to treat it like it’s our house and not a wood shop. These measures will hopefully remind us of that every. single. day.
There’s so much more than can be said on this matter, and I’m sure at some point I’ll come back and revisit them either in a blog post or on Facebook. For now, though, I’m going to post a collection of quadriptych images from the fire and its clean-up so far. We still have more KILZ to apply after scraping the charred parts off a few more places, but it’s coming along nicely so far. First, though, I also refused to let the fire prevent me from making any progress at all on my chunk of days off in a row, and something always seems to prevent me from getting as much work done as I want to when I actually have more than a day off to do it (i.e. bad weather, grumpy kiddo, hubby with too many school deadlines, etc). Just the same, I got one of those projects started here:
Here’s a photo listing of some of the damage caused by the fire with captions explaining the details. We’re very, very fortunate the damage wasn’t much worse, but you’ll see from the photos just how the damage it did make was widespread over the whole house interior. Remember people: spontaneous combustion is REAL and can happen to ANYONE!
Here’s a look at the before and (current) after of the inside of the house after the fire. Like I said, there’s still more work to be done, but at least we made some progress. Please…. remember to soak ALL oil soaked rags in water in a metal container outdoors and FAR away from your tiny house. Follow all manufacturer labels for safe disposal of any and all potentially hazardous materials, take the extra time to thoroughly clean up after yourself especially with wood cutting and painting/staining projects, and S-L-O-W…D-O-W-N long enough to double check that you took the necessary safety precautions before, during, and after your project. It’s not worth rushing around if you end up taking shortcuts – intentionally or subconsciously – that lead to disaster.
Once your house is built be sure to have a fire extinguisher or two in easy-to-reach locations, and keep one in your work areas, too. It wouldn’t have helped us in this case, but we’re getting one just the same! Don’t forget smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, as well as propane detectors if you’ll have propane anywhere in/around your house. Even if you DIY your house, it’s still a GREAT idea to use the NFPA 1192 life safety guidelines to help you build your house to be the safest it can be, which we were already planning to do. Again, this incident happened in spite of us knowing how dangerous these oil-based stains can be – it was distracted carelessness, not ignorance or laziness, that led to our fire. Don’t let distractions prevent you from being safe. EVER!
All the best for a SAFE building process,
P.S. I’ve gone back through the post and highlighted the seven most obvious problems I found that led up to our fire and created a post HERE discussing them in detail. Check it out to see how dumb we were and how we should have seen this coming.