On March 9, 2011, a fire at a nursing home in North Charleston, SC, forced 170 residents out of their home. The local fire department investigated the blaze to find out what went wrong at White Oak Manor nursing home. What they discovered may be surprising to you: hot towels were to blame. According to a fire department spokeswoman, commercial dryers use a heat setting that’s much higher than an ordinary, household dryer. The nursing home staff used an alcohol-based fabric softener with the towels. While the towels were still hot, they were placed inside a linen closet. The high heat of the dryer, when combined with the alcohol-based fabric softener, caused the towels to ignite, starting the fire.
Not the First Time It’s Happened
Although spontaneously combusting towels may seem like an unlikely cause of a fire, it’s not the first time it happened. In fact, a few months before the Charleston nursing home fire, the exact same thing happened at an education center in Roanoke, VA — hot towels that recently removed from a commercial dryer spontaneously combusted. No one was hurt, but the fire caused $21,000 in damages.
Meanwhile, in the summer of 2010, two Spokane house fires that started within hours of each other both began when someone microwaved bath towels.
Fire Safety Tips
Fans of the old sitcom Seinfeld might remember the episode where the character Kramer decided to use his oven to get that “dryer-fresh” feeling for his clothes, and subsequently caught his apartment on fire. Although the episode was laughable, fires at schools, nursing homes, and houses really are not funny.
When a towel comes out of a commercial dryer or a microwave, be aware that it will retain high levels of heat. Allow towels to cool before placing them on a wooden surface or putting them in an enclosed area, such as a linen closet, where heat cannot dissipate. In particular, check the ingredients to the fabric softener you use for linens, and if it’s alcohol-based, you may wish to change brands. This is especially important when using a commercial-strength dryer.
Finally, even though Kramer seemed to have something going, have the common sense not to place towels in ovens or microwaves.