A Devastating Shop Fire

Article - May 4, 2009

We are leading Safety Week 2009 off with a story of a devastating shop fire. Really, this is one of my worst nightmares. If you haven’t thought about fire safety in your shop, you sure as heck will after you hear this story and see the images. Thanks to Mike Mies for sharing his story so that others may benefit from it. Take it away Mike:

img_00621A few weeks ago my woodworking shop caught fire and burned to the ground. Ironically, it appears that the boiled linseed oil may have been the culprit. Yes, I did in fact view and took heed of your safety podcasts and comments on boiled linseed oil. You did your best to warn me. The enclosed photos pretty much tell the whole story. img_0058Although I am struggling with the loss of my trusted tools and shop, the loss of my ?crown jewel” (my newest project) impacts me the most. Likewise, my wife (who actually had a vested interest in the vanity since it was the first time that she helped me apply the topcoat on a project), is really taking it hard. Not to mention that we now face the prospect of not having a functional master bathroom for the foreseeable future.

dsc09046As I sit here this morning trying to assemble my thoughts and begin to fill out the insurance companies ?personal property inventory” my first entry is my Powermatic 66 table saw: my baby with less than two years in my shop. My Google search for the saw’s replacement cost takes to me to Amazon.com. I immediately think of the Wood Whisperer and hear your “The gold standard…” voiceover in my head. My brain (or what’s left of it after 30 years of spending my evenings and weekends in a woodworking shop) goes into hyper-speed as I envision a few interesting concept. dsc09050First, I think that it would only be fair and appropriate that I go through your Amazon store for all my online purchases (especially since I’ve only been lurking on your site and haven’t yet joined or actively participated). Secondly, I start thinking what a unique opportunity I have to design a new shop from the ground up and include the Wood Whisperer community.

dsc09186Fortunately, I have very good insurance and have no pressure to immediately rebuild my shop. Several woodworking friends have stepped up to meet my immediate needs and keep the wife off my back on the bathroom renovation. Consistent with my affliction to the woodworking bug, the clean-slate concept of starting a new project is rapidly breathing life back into my Craftsman spirit. What an emotional ride I have had these past few weeks! I’ve been rummaging through the debris pile trying to prod my memory of what I have collected these past 30 years and thinking about the possibilities of a clean slate.

dsc09250Neither the Fire Marshall nor the insurance adjuster’s expert could conclusively determine the actual origin of ignition but all factors lead to the boiled linseed oil. The fire started at the rear door of my shop, nowhere near any electrical wire, outlet, equipment etc. There were only three things at the door (which was cracked open to help facilitate the evacuation of fumes from the prior day’s finishing operations); 1) all the partially used cans of oil-based stain, sealing (shellac/denatured alcohol) and BLO that were staged to be transported to my outside storage shed, 2) a heap of scrapped cut-offs destined to the fire pit and 3) approximately 50 paper rags saturated with the previously mentioned solutions. dsc09279 The spent towels (Scotts Rags in a Box) were scattered on the ground just outside the door earlier that morning to dry-out in an area that never receives direct sunlight (like I’ve done hundreds of times in the past, albeit this was the first time using BLO). Worst-case, the rags may have been laying four (4) or five (5) sheets deep. Even considering that some of them may have been folded once or twice over, I doubt that the paper towels were stacked thicker than 1/2″. Not the conditions conducive to generating sufficient heat that you would think necessary to start a fire.

dsc09061My brother, who has a cabinet shop in Indiana, told me yesterday that he once experienced a similar unexplained incident several years ago. He replaced his spray booth filters and scattered the dirty filters out on the concrete floor in an attached garage/storage area to air-out since they were still wet. The next morning when he opened his shop doors, he noticed a particular smell and haze in the air. He traced the fumes down to the air filters, which were hot to the touch and actually producing some smoke! He claims that had he not found them when he did that they would likely have caught fire. For what its worth, he only shoots a small amount of oil-based stains and a lot of lacquer and related thinners.

Bottom-line: the jury is still out on what actually happened. Ironically, Ive been in the disaster recovery business for the past 24 years and am supposed to be THE expert on fires. My only out is that my specialty is actually what happens AFTER the fire, not what started it!


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