Fire Experts: Towels Used For Cleaning Can Spontaneously Combust After Washing, Drying

Danville, VA - Have you ever seen a towel catch on fire out of nowhere?

Fire officials say it actually happens more than you think. Towels and other fabrics you use to clean can spontaneously combust if you make one common mistake.

It turns out washed towels with lingering oil residue can lead to a fire in your dryer.

Even after they are dried and folded, the combination of the heat and the leftover residue can cause the towels to ignite.

It's a phenomenon one North Carolina fire marshal has encountered over and over in recent years.

"We do see some really odd things occurring in fire investigations, " said Rockingham Co. Fire Marshal Robert Cardwell.

In Reidsville and Rockingham County, fire crews have responded to multiple calls at laundromats, restaurants, and even homes where towels have randomly ignited after being washed and dried.Cardwell says many people make the mistake of using a towel to clean up oily kitchen messes. If all that oil doesn't come out in the wash, high heat from the dryer could cause spontaneous combustion.Washing in cold water is part of the problem.

"That cold water is locking that oil in that towel. Then you put it in a dryer and today's dryers are super high heat dryers. You have the possibility of a spontaneous ignition occurring from the breakdown of that oil, " said Cardwell.

Danville's fire marshal says she has also seen this occur with mop heads and other fabrics that come in contact with petroleum-based cleaning products."They want to keep the mop heads clean so they wash them. You think after you wash something it is clean, " said Chief Shelby Irving, but most washers come with labels that warn against throwing in items soaked in oil since residue could get left behind and spread to other items.

"It can happen so just be cautious. Read the labels, and the best thing to do is line dry or hang them to dry, not put that kind of thing in the dryer, " Irving said.

Both fire marshals say washing soiled fabrics in hot water and hanging them to dry can cut down on the risk. They say the best thing to do with rags or towels that are heavily soiled with oil or grease is to throw them away.