Two reasons fires today are burning hotter and faster than ever

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - You now have less than three minutes to safely escape a house fire.

Captain Eric Ashley with the Virginia Beach Fire Department has seen the escape time decrease drastically over the years, while the intensity of the flames has increased.

"Fires today burn about 15 times hotter than about 20 years ago," Captain Ashley told News 3 anchor Todd Corillo.

So, what's behind fires burning hotter and faster than ever before?

It all has to do with how homes are being built and what's inside them.

"What we term as legacy construction versus contemporary construction," Captain Ashley explained.

"In the past, homes were constructed with real lumber, old growth timber resisted fire [and] took a long time to produce toxic smoke," whereas with the contemporary homes "much of the construction is engineered using glue, laminates and stuff to make lumber out of fibers and it burns and produces very toxic smoke," he continued.

The change means it takes just a short time for fires to burn out of control.

"20 to 30 years ago, we had 18 to 20 minutes before an entire room would erupt in flame and it would be only just that room because of compartmentalization," Captain Ashley stated.

Now with open floor plans, the smoke and flames are spreading fast, meaning you have just minutes to get out of a burning home.

The other big reason fires are burning hotter and faster than ever before has to do with what's inside.

"About 30 years ago, most home furnishings consisted of wool, cotton, and regular wood. Today, most of them are metal with synthetic materials."

Those products, everything from pillow to floor coverings, are mostly made from synthetic, petroleum-based products which can accelerate a fire.

"Smoke starts to bank down at about 3-4 minutes and in about 8-10 minutes the temperatures to the ceiling reaches 11-1200 degrees. That heat rapidly approaching the floor causes everything in the room to spontaneously combust and the whole room is immediately overtaken by fire."

There is one thing you can do every night before going to bed to greatly increase your chances of surviving a fire: Closing the doors in your home before falling asleep.

"It’s about that compartmentalization. That door will protect you in your bedroom for about 15 minutes. That keeps the smoke and heat from penetrating into the bedroom, allowing you to be alert and escape," Captain Ashley shared.

That only works, though, if there are working smoke alarms in the home to alert you to danger and when they go off, you take the threat seriously.

Related: Virginia Beach Fire, Red Cross participate in 'Sound the Alarm' smoke detector campaign 

"What we try to teach people is as soon as they hear the smoke alarm, don’t take time to investigate; gather your family, gather your pets and immediately evacuate."

You can learn more about how to receive a free smoke detector through the "Operation Smoke Detector" program here.

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