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UP IN FLAMES: Why some homes are more flammable than others

LFD demonstrates how easily fire spreads with new building materials and open floor plans (Photo: LFD).

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- In Virginia 29 people have died in house fires, in just 2017.

If a fire breaks out some homes are more likely to burn to the ground than others; changing lives forever.

Master firefighter Earl Copes with the Lynchburg Fire Department said the intensity of house fires is changing too.

"The fires are much hotter,” Copes said. “They burn much faster."

The way homes are being built is the reason behind that according to Lynchburg Deputy Fire Chief Greg Wormser.

"Unfortunately with the current building trend all of the components in the building of a structure are meant to work well together,” Wormser explained. “But if anyone of those components fails, the failure can be catastrophic."

That coveted open floor plan, the light-weight materials used in new construction and the furnishings we buy to decorate our homes, all of that can make your home more flammable.

The Lynchburg Fire Department built a small scale model home to demonstrate how.

“We'll start to show how that fire and smoke can communicate from point A to point B in the house,” Wormser said.

In the demo, that fire spread quickly when fueled by the oxygen from an open window/door or the open floor plan of the home.

Homes built from the early 2000s on pose the greatest risk according LFD Captain Ronnie Coleman.

“When we think back to legacy construction homes and the way they were built in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, we had much more time to fight the fire, get inside the building and find the fire before we were worried about structural collapse," Coleman explained.

The buzz word they use a lot when responding to a fire, or training to respond, is flashover.

“When we think of flashover all of the combustible materials have reached the ignition temperature and they flash over or consume in fire all at once,” Coleman said "Flashover is absolutely a big deal."

The time it takes for flashover to occur has dramatically changed in recent years according Copes.

“With the legacy style homes, most of the material is natural: wood, cotton, solid material. The fire would grow and take anywhere from 20-30 minutes,” Copes explained. "Now with the petroleum based products we have in our home the rate of flash-over has gone anywhere from three to five minutes."

That means it only takes three to five minutes for a room to get hot enough to burst into flames, making it a race against time when crews are responding.

"Fortunately for us, we are at the station. We are in a constant state of readiness,” Copes said. “So when you call us, our time to arrive on the scene is much shorter than if you have a volunteer crew. It doesn't mean they are willing and capable to do the job, it's just there's a lag time.”

That lag is something that Bedford County Fire and Rescue Chief Jack Jones is keenly aware of.

"We're about 800 square miles in Bedford County and approximately 80,000 people," Jones said. “Yeah, there's a lot at stake. All day every day."

With new construction popping up in the county, it's a huge challenge for this volunteer department.

"We are doing what we can to make a safer environment for both the citizens and firefighters; changing the operations, changing the numbers of vehicles that we send,” Jones said. “In the Forest area the additional of a tower ladder, a specialty piece to reach higher floors with an apparatus on the end."

The Bedford County Fire Department is also using a drone to better assess the outside of a structure, before sending their firefighters inside.

There are some steps you can take protect your family.

Remember, fire needs oxygen, so close all of the doors in your home that you aren't using during the day and especially at night, also, when it comes to furnishing your home, shop carefully.

"Do your research, know what you are buying so you can hopefully buy products that are better suited for your living style and better suited for minimizing fire spread," Wormser said.

Frank Moore with the National Lumber & Building Material Dealers Association regulatory counsel said he doesn't have any good information on product flammability and hasn't seen anything in the trade press on this relative to single-family home building.

"From a building supply perspective, dealers provide material specified by builders and architects, and rely on the assertions of the product manufacturers. Flammability of dimensional lumber hasn't changed," he said.

Jones also said a residential sprinkler system is a great investment.

If you're building a house, Jones said it costs pennies on the dollar and the department is trying to get out there to educate both builders and homeowners about the investment. Your home can also be retro fitted.

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