The Science Behind Fire: 5 Little Known Facts

There’s a lot more to putting out fires than big hoses and bucket brigades. Many schools now offer degrees in fire science, which are useful to anyone who has wanted to ride on a big red engine and save the day. This branch of study is fascinating, and uncovers the mysteries behind an element many people encounter, but seldom think to observe. Here are 5 facts about fire science you may never have considered:

1. Metal can catch fire. Metals, of course, will melt when exposed to high temperatures, but did you know that some can also burn? Sodium, magnesium, and lithium are particularly flammable. Metal fires are very hard to extinguish, as water and flame retardant foam often make them larger. Instead, metal fires can be fought with “dry powder,” such as sodium chloride granules, graphite powder, or copper powder. Some firefighters also advocate simply leaving a metal fire alone, allowing it to burn out. This strategy is most effective in the case of large industrial blazes.

2. Electricity cannot. The term “electrical fire” is misleading, as electricity cannot truly be on fire. The correct classification is “a fire which contains an element of electricity.” Only matter is flammable, and electricity is not matter – rather, it is a form of energy. Of course, electricity can complicate a fire, and the methods for dealing with a fire which contains electricity are very different than those for a pure “matter fire.” Never, ever use water to extinguish an electrical fire, as water is a conductor, and can carry the electric current through your body. Instead, fight electrical fires with baking soda or a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher.

3. You CAN fight fire with fire. Forest fires are often extinguished with the aid of ” back burning.” By this method, firefighters burn out a section of woodland in order to keep an uncontrolled fire from advancing. These controlled fires are made along barriers called “firebreaks” – areas through which fire cannot advance. A firebreaks can be natural (rivers) or man made (roads, bulldozed clearings).

4. The vast majority of forest fires are man made. Smokey was right to warn us – according to his website, nine out of ten wildfires are caused by humans. This incredibly high percentage can be blamed on human expansion into wooded areas, the accumulation of dead leaves and timber on forest floors, and changing U.S. weather patterns.

5. Fire can stimulate the forest, too. Many cultures worldwide are versed with the renewing effects of fire – most agrarian civilizations knew that occasionally, a forest has to burn in order for new plant life to grow. Some trees, like the sequoia, need heat in order to release their seeds. The controlled burning of wooded areas is important to our ecosystem – but leave it to the professionals. This isn’t a DIY job.

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