A home engulfed in flames.

How Fast is Fire?

Six-year-old Zack comes home from school. His mother, Marge, greets him in the kitchen with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a glass of milk—his favorite snack. As Zack tells his mother about his day, she puts a pot roast into the oven to slow cook for dinner. Marge then goes upstairs to sort clothes. Zack heads to the living room where the family dog usually naps. In the living room he finds a book of matches that has been left out on the coffee table.

Remembering how his mother lit a candle at dinner the night before, Zack picks up the matches. He ignites one and watches it burn for a few moments before shaking it out. Pleased with his mastery, Zack lights a second match. Suddenly, it flares up and stings Zack’s finger. He shakes his hand. The match drops onto a sofa cushion and a burn spot immediately appears.

Scared he will be scolded for the burn mark, Zack quickly leaves the living room, the dog trailing at his heels. Zack is careful to close the pocket doors to the living room to hide the burnt cushion. He and the dog run outside to hide in the backyard. The progression of the fire at Zach's house is described as follows:

The clock begins at (0:00) as Zach drops the match and the burn mark appears.

(0.30) A small flame is visible on the cushion.

(1:04) In another 34 seconds: The entire sofa cushion is burning. Smoke is filling the living room.

(1:35) One minute and 35 seconds after Zach drops the match: Temperature in the area around the sofa exceeds 190 degrees F. The smoke layer descends rapidly from the ceiling.

(1:50) One minute and 50 seconds after Zach drops the match: The smoke alarm in the downstairs hallway goes off. Marge, not seeing or smelling smoke, finishes folding Zack’s last two tee-shirts before leaving the bedroom.

(2:30) 40 seconds after the smoke alarm goes off: Marge finally smells smoke. Temperature above the sofa is now over 400 degrees F. Panic-stricken, Marge is unable to organize her thoughts . She runs down the stairs and into the front hall, calling for Zack. She pulls open the pocket doors.

(2:48) Smoke pours into other rooms in the house.

(3:03) Another 15 seconds pass: No one can survive in the living room now, where the temperature is over 500 degrees F. Unable to breathe standing up, Marge crawls down the hallway, completely disoriented.

(3:20) One minute and 30 seconds after the smoke alarm goes off: Smoke fills the upstairs hallway from floor to ceiling. If Marge were still upstairs, escape from the second story would be very difficult.

(3:41) 21 more seconds pass: A surge of energy called a 'flashover' ignites everything in the living room. The temperature is now 1400 degrees F. In the hallway, Marge is fighting for her life.

(3:50) 9 more seconds go by: The front of the house’s first floor is engulfed in flames, blocking the front door. Marge crawls toward the sound of people screaming outside the back door. Neighbors drag her from the house. Zack, who has been hiding in the backyard all this time, is reunited with his mother.

(4:33) 2 minutes and 43 seconds after the smoke alarm goes off: Flames are visible from the house’s exterior. If anyone were still inside, rescue might not be possible.

Resource: Speed of a fire, based upon a fire recorded by the City of Phoenix Fire Service.

*Every situation may vary. There is the possibility that the whole room can explode within 2 and ˝ minutes from the first flame. You need to be prepared for this. Lt. Robert Crandall, VP Fireproof Children/Prevention First

© 2005 Fireproof Children/Prevention First.