Special Report: Why modern homes burn faster

By Audrey Wise

March 4, 2014 Updated Mar 5, 2014 at 11:14 AM CDT

PEORIA, Ill. -- Fighting a fire is hard no matter the circumstances. While firefighters never hope for a fire, when one does happen many actually prefer to fight one in an old house.

The Peoria Fire Department can get to almost any fire in the city within four to six minutes after a call. If they are heading to an area with newer homes firefighters already know it could be a more dangerous fight.

"I'd rather be in a old house versus a new house,” said Division Chief Ed Olehy. “In the old house you kind of have that thought in the back of your mind that this is a full-thickness lumber house, full-thickness lumber takes longer to burn, from the firefighters standpoint a sturdier build and it gives us more time to work."

There are many factors that make older houses better from a firefighters point of view. It's everything from an open floor plan to energy efficient windows that makes a new construction home go up in flames that much faster.

"What you'll see in an old house is full-thickness plaster which will hold the heat into that room better. You'll see full-thickness doors. Even though the products in the rooms are burning the rooms aren't opened up as much. With a door closed we can still hold a fire to one room much easier than we can in the total new construction,” said Division Chief Olehy.

Peoria Fire Chief Kent Tomblin said it's not just how the house is built, it's the new products in them.

The National Fire Protection Association said that upholstered furniture is the leading item involved in recent home fire deaths, injury and property damage.

"The old houses you had old, sturdy furniture and when it burnt it burnt a smoke that was created that didn't stop you in your tracks," Chief Tomblin said. "In new houses nowadays a chair catches on fire, we've got so many plastics, so many polyesters, when it starts burning it puts out a smoke that will literally knock you to your knees."

To show firefighters the timing and dangers Underwriters Laboratories put out a video. They lit a flame in two rooms, one new construction with new furnishings, the other is an older model.

Within 30 seconds there is enough smoke to set off the fire alarms in both rooms. At one minute the older room has more flames. The modern room has a lot of smoke, but quickly the microfiber couch and polyester throw catch. At less than three and a half minutes the room is fully engulfed.

We also did our own experiment with the fire department. We lit two piles on fire. One is old construction lumber, traditional solid wood. The other is new synthetic product made out of milk jugs and saw dust. They let each pile burn for four and a half minutes.

Division Chief Olehy said there is a lot to learn from it.

“Basically how quickly the products that we had in there went up. They were gone really, really quickly and the amount of black smoke that's being put off, the toxic smoke from the un-burned combustion in this stuff," he said. "We saw in a good stand up four and a half minute burn of the true lumber it still has its integrity in tact."

So what does this mean for homeowners?

Chief Tomblin said the new materials work about the same and are cheaper. But if you are building a house or remodeling, you can have a say if you are willing to spend the money.

"You can determine what you build with. You can determine what your floor joist is going to be. Is it going to be a solid 8x12 beam or is it going to be a couple pieces of laminated wood glued together type of beam. So you can make those type of decisions," Chief Tomblin said. "Are you going to use 2x4s or maybe a larger wood. You certainly can impact, in the unfortunate case that you're houses catches on fire, you can impact how you make that construction and you can make a safer house."

Food for thought before the sirens go off.

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