“Breaking Bad” – Investigating Fires From Chemicals and Chemical Reactions

Elizabeth C. Buc, PhD, PE, CFI
Fire and Materials Research Laboratory LLC

Presented at International Symposium on Fire Investigation, 2014


Under some conditions, chemicals that are otherwise stable can react, evolve heat and cause a fire, detonate or explode. The fire investigator has to identify the chemical reactants, the reaction products and conditions that supported ignition and flame spread. A chemical fire investigation flow diagram and real-world examples of fires involving chemicals are presented to assist the fire investigator in processing chemical fires. Examples of chemical fires include self-heating, a thermite reaction, a runaway reaction from mixing incompatible materials and reactions generating hydrogen gas. Factors contributing to chemical fires such as size or quantity of material, confinement, contamination and upset process conditions are identified. Sampling, chemical analyses, literature review, and/or testing proposed or potential adverse chemical reactions are required to establish the root cause of a chemical fire.

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