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West End apartment fire caused by 'self-heating oil' rags left on balcony

Sunday’s fire that sent black smoke billowing from a West End high-rise was caused by leftover rags soaked with linseed oil.

Sunday’s fire that sent black smoke billowing from a West End high-rise was caused by leftover rags soaked with linseed oil.

Just before 5 p.m. crews responded to reports of smoke coming from an apartment building in the 1200-block of Pacific Avenue. Crews arrived to find a suite on the 15th floor engulfed in heavy smoke and flames.

 Screenshot. Screenshot. @megstert/Twitter

The blaze was quickly upgraded to a three-alarm fire and more crews arrived on scene.

“High rises present some of the most challenging circumstances for our crews to fight fires because of the restricted spaces to access the fire, the restricted spaces on the fire floor to lay out and safely attack and set up rescue, and to get supplies up to the fire floor while safely evacuating people,” Gormick said.

“This is why it’s imperative that we have large numbers of staff on scene quickly at high-rise fires.”

Firefighters were able to quickly extinguish the fire. Fire damage was contained to the one suite, while some adjacent suites did suffer some smoke damage. No one was injured, however, Gormick said, a small number residents have not been able to return to their suites.

The fire was started by improperly stored linseed oil rags.

“Linseed oil is a natural oil and natural oils have a self-heating property. If you use a rag you have to store it in a proper container,” said Assistant Chief Ray Bryant.

In this case, the rags were left in a ball on a piece of cardboard.

“When you do that with a self-heating oil… it can’t release the heat that’s generated as the product starts to dry,” Bryant said, adding that temperatures within the rag can reach up to 500 degrees.

“It takes about three hours for the self-generation of heat to occur, and that’s what happened in this case.”

The rags were stored outside on the balcony. The cardboard ignited close to a glass window, the glass shattered and the fire spread into the suite.

Bryant said the proper way to store rags used with natural oil is to lay them flat on a non-flammable surface.

“They will naturally dry over a day or two and become hard,” he said. “When they become hard and fully dry you can actually put them in the garbage quite safely.”

Alternatively, the rags can be stored for re-use in a lidded metal container. They can also be stored in a bucket of water.

“This will take care of any self-combusting problems.”

Since 2016, there have been 39 incidents in the city where a fire was caused by self-heating oil.

“It happens more often than you think,” Bryant said, adding that it happens most often with greasy rags at restaurants and spas.

“They have a lot of issues with them overheating in their dryers.”

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