A fire that broke out Thursday in a warehouse owned by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has been determined by fire investigators to have been caused by the spontaneous combustion of discarded cotton rags soaked with linseed oil.
Workers discarded the rags in a cardboard box after applying a coat of linseed oil to the wooden bed of a district service truck. The oil was applied as preventive maintenance, in order to keep the wood in good condition. An estimated nine hours later, flames spontaneously erupted from the rags and spread to paper goods and other combustibles stored nearby. The fire damaged or destroyed much of the contents of the warehouse, including the service truck, which was parked inside the building, according to Gary Hale, fire marshal with Central Emergency Services.
Firefighters arrived at the warehouse behind school district offices on Park Street across from Soldotna Elementary at approximately 7:22 p.m., three minutes after a passing motorist called 911 to report a possible fire. Smoke and flames were visible at the rear of the building. Fire crews forced open entry and garage doors to gain access to the fire and declared the fire under control within 19 minutes of arrival.
The fire was extinguished quickly enough that the structural framing of the warehouse sustained little or no fire damage. However, the contents of the 4,000-square-foot building, including paper goods, computers, monitors, food items and the 2003 International tandem axle truck to which workers were applying the linseed oil, were damaged or destroyed, Hale said.
Fire officials estimate the loss of property at $200,000, including the truck, valued at $85,000.
Guy Fisher, assistant superintendent of the school district, said writing the truck off might be premature.
An assessor will be called in to determine what might be repaired and what will have to be replaced, including the tandem axle.
"We don't know whether (the truck) was a total loss or not, but it was damaged," he said.
Fisher said the fire was unfortunate but could have been a lot worse. He credits the fast response of emergency services personnel for saving the warehouse structure.
"We had such a quick response from the fire department. They did a great job in getting over here and getting it contained," he said.
Hale warned that although the cause of the fire might seem unusual, it's not uncommon. He said he has seen a number of fires caused by the spontaneous combustion of linseed oil-soaked rags.
Many homeowners coat their decks with linseed oil to keep the wood from drying out. Fires start when a person doesn't properly clean and dispose of the rags, he said.
Hale recommends allowing rags used to apply linseed oil to dry, washing them with soap and water and allowing them to dry again, before disposing of them.
"If you don't do this, the rags will heat up, and it's only a matter of time before they reach ignition temperature," he said.
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