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Learning from a burning

  • AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Mari Gruber in the alley behind the Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary at the burn barrel where she, without warning, became engulfed in flames.
    AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Mari Gruber in the alley behind the Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary at the burn barrel where she, without warning, became engulfed in flames.
Published October 06. 2012 09:02AM

Always the teacher, within seconds of removing her flaming apron and extinguishing her charred shirt, Mari Gruber thought to herself, "Oh God. What about kids with scarves and puffy coats around bonfires?"

Gruber, the proprietor of the Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary in the Penn Forest Township suburb of Jim Thorpe came very close to becoming a burn victim.

"I was in the alley behind the Butterfly Sanctuary building, burning paper and cardboard in my burn barrel," she said. "I burn trash at least once a day.

"Kids had lunch there that morning, so there were a lot of cardboard cartons. I started the fire that burned for about 15 minutes. It was a hot fire."

Gruber was burning trash in an old steel drum. The waist high drum was covered with a steel mesh, and had air holes at the bottom.

"I wore a tunic that went halfway to my knees, his shirt, and over it, I wore an apron," she said.

The bottom of the apron was about six inches above the bottom of the tunic."

Gruber, standing about a foot away from the barrel, leaned over the barrel to see how the paper and cardboard were burning. Without warning, she was on fire.

"When I looked down the flames were at mid-waist with the apron engulfed in flames and the tunic underneath the apron was melting, smoking, and sticking to my jeans," she said.

"I forgot to 'STOP, DROP, ROLL and COOL'," she explained. "I pulled the apron off over my head and started slapping my clothing with my hands."

Gruber's skin received minor burns through her jeans from the heat of the melted polyester. Polyester tunic did not catch on fire, it melted and charred.

She didn't understand why her clothing had caught on fire when she was 12 inches from the heat and open flame. She wanted people to know what happened to her, she wanted to understand what happened to her, and she wanted to warn people of the danger of the flammability of clothing.

What happened? What can you do if you find that your clothing is on fire? What can you do to protect yourself?

Things catch on fire if heat, fuel and oxygen are available. There was plenty of oxygen in the air. The burn barrel became hot enough so that its radiant energy served as a source of heat. The fuel was the clothing.

The apron Gruber was wearing was a blend of 65 percent polyester and 35 percent cotton. The tunic was made of 100 percent polyester.

Pure cotton fabric burns with a rising flame, that's why it is used as a wick in candles. Pure polyester doesn't burn so much as it melts and drips. While both cotton and polyester present a burn hazard, the combination of cotton and polyester as seen in the 65 percent polyester/35 percent cotton apron presented a severe burn hazard, with the cotton supporting a rising flame and the polyester creating a dripping flame front. Together, they encouraged a rapid spread of the flames.

Several additional factors led to the rapid flame spread. Both her tunic and apron were loose fitting, which allowed both sides of the fabric to be exposed to air. Also, she was standing upright which served to support the flame front rising towards her face and dripping onto her legs.

Gruber was able to put out the fire by removing her apron. She was fortunate that it came off easily, as an apron is loosely tied in the back and looped over the neck.

Had she not been able to remove the apron, she hoped that she would have remembered to STOP, DROP, ROLL and COOL.

STOP where you are. Moving or running feeds air to the flames and worsens the fire.

DROP to the floor. If you stand up, the fire can burn your face. Fold your arms high on your chest to protect your face.

ROLL slowly on the floor or ground, in a rug or blanket if you can.

COOL off as soon as possible with water for first and second degree burns.

What clothing is flame resistant? Textiles marked: Fireproof, Non-combustible, or Non-flammable will not burn. An example is fiberglass.

Textiles marked "Fire/Flame-retardant" or "Fire/Flame-resistant" will be slower to ignite, slower to burn, and may self-extinguish when the flame/heat source is removed. Textiles marked "Combustible", "Flammable" or "Inflammable" will burn readily. If a textile does not have a flammability resistance label you can assume it will ignite easily.

Fabrics containing cotton, cotton/polyester blends, rayon, and acrylic are relatively easy to ignite and burn rapidly. Fabrics of 100 per cent polyester, nylon, wool and silk are more difficult to ignite and tend to self-extinguish. Tight weaves or knits and fabrics without a fuzzy or napped surface are less likely to ignite and burn rapidly than open knits or weaves, or fabrics with brushed or piled surfaces.

Consider purchasing garments that you can remove without having to pull them over your head. Clothes that are easy to remove can help prevent serious burns. If a garment can be quickly taken off when it catches fire, an injury will be far less severe or avoided altogether.

The only flammability limitations that exist by U.S. law apply to children's nightwear. All of the children's wear and all adult clothing are not required by law to resist burning. Although it is commonly assumed that children are most likely to victims of clothing burns, this is not true. Roughly 75 percent of the victims of clothing burns are senior citizens, with most clothing fires started by burning cigarettes.

"I was concerned because I know that I did not make contact with any flame," Gruber noted. "I still can't imagine as an adult that your clothing can burst into flame just being near a source of heat."

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