Public Service Announcement: Unexpected Fire

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Recently Daniel Y. wrote an article reminding us to be safe and responsible shooters with regards to not starting wildfires. Well, I can speak from experience that even when you think you are taking the right precautions, a fire can still happen. But more importantly, freak accidents can happen when the conditions are right. My friends and I witnessed an unexpected fire in the most unlikely location and scenario. Look at the photo above and try to figure out how a fire could have started without the usual components for starting a fire.

Range and Gun Safety @ TFB:

Unexpected Fire Even When You Mean Well

Last Independence Day weekend I went on a camping trip with my friends. I brought along rimfire sensitive binary explosives.

I wanted to try and capture the explosion on a high-speed camera. Since it was hot and dry, I filled an empty water jug with water from the nearby spring and taped the baggie of powder to the side thinking it would break the bottle and the water will help dampen the explosion. Never in my mind did I think this could start an unexpected fire. Just the previous weekend, my friends came down to the campsite and cleared out most of the tall weeds and grasses. This is partially why we thought shooting binary explosives would be relatively safe. We thought we had removed the fuel to feed a fire. We were wrong.

My friend Jerry took the shot while I manned the camera to film the slow-motion explosion. I managed to film it but then we realized it had started an unexpected fire! See the slow motion build up to a wildfire.

We all ran over and immediately tried to put out the unexpected fire. Since the binary explosion did not burst the bottle, it was still mostly intact and mostly full of water. I opened the cap and poured the contents out onto the ground. I used it too much too fast and quickly ran out before extinguishing the fire. More people brought water and helped stomp out the fire. One of my friends was trying to sweep the dirt onto the fire but it had a terrible consequence. Instead of sweeping dirt over the fire, he was kicking hot embers away to start more fire. I distinctly remember looking down at the ground to see if there was any more fire for me to step on and in my peripheral vision I saw the fire had started behind me.

Burned ground

The fire grew a lot faster than we had expected but we managed to contain it. This was an eye-opening experience for all of us – engineers, teachers, and avid firearm enthusiasts. We all thought this would be relatively safe. We were wrong and while it may seem obvious now, it was not so at the time. No one spoke up thinking this would be a bad idea. I feel stupid now in hindsight. Hopefully, my blunder will be used to educate others, just don’t do it.

Unexpected Fire In Odd Places And For Even Odder Reasons

unexpected fire under the table

Now that you know my mistake, let me share a tale of a truly unexpected fire that was not started by our negligence. Remember the question I asked at the beginning of this article? Scroll back up and look at the top photo of the shooting bench. Although the photo above will also work just as well. Have you spotted the fire?

Let’s rewind. My two friends and I were at the range. It was just after 1pm and both my friend Kythe and I thought we smelled smoke. We stopped shooting and scanned the area. Kythe is a local firefighter and is trained for fighting wildfires. We could smell a subtle hint of smoke but we could not see any signs of a fire anywhere within our line of sight – 360º around us, nothing.

Now fast forward 10 minutes later. Kythe and I noticed the corner of this shooting bench was on fire! I could see flames licking the edge of the table. The shooting platform is where we had all of our gear and we were shooting only a few yards away from it just 10 minutes ago. We used a bottle of water to put out the unexpected fire. Kythe poked a small hole in the bottle cap and slowly squirted the water onto the burning wood.

Crisis averted. But look at where the unexpected fire started. It started underneath the shooting bench. However, there was nothing on fire under the table. Then it dawned on me. The metal stool. Thanks to my dabbling in Schlieren imaging, it made sense to me. Schlieren Imaging uses a concave mirror to focus light to a point. The metal stool has been used for decades and all the butts it has held up have polished it smooth. Add to the fact that it has a slight depression that is sort of like a concave surface. The sun over head is at its brightest and hottest. It shone down onto the stool. The polished seat acted like a mirror reflecting the light and heat. But it was the concave-like depression that helped to focus that light and heat enough to burn the underside of the table. It took a while and we do not know when it started but the underside of the table was charred a lot more than what you see on the side edge. So it was cooking for a while before it actually became a fire.

How could we have known this would happen? It was definitely unintentional and no one was taking risks that shouldn’t have been taken. This was a freak accident where the moons and stars aligned and a fire was started. This range is private land so if we had left without discovering this small fire, putting it out and more importantly deducing what caused it, the whole hill and surrounding areas could well have broken out into a true wildfire. The land owner has had that stool for decades and not once has this ever happened. Truly an unexpected fire of epic proportions.

Conclusion

Be vigilant when it comes to fires. We tried our best and an unexpected fire still happened. The binary fire was definitely avoidable. The shiny stool reflecting the light to cause a fire is not something I would have ever thought of but thanks to my experimenting with high-speed cameras, I understand how it can happen. We have taken precautions now. Kythe turned the stool on its side. But I told him to turn it completely upside down eliminating any possibility of the stool reflecting light. Kythe knows the land owner and recommended that he no longer uses that stool from now on.



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