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Nobody expected these to spontaneously combust, but they caused a $35,000 Whatcom fire

A fire, which started when a bucket of towels that had cooking oil on them and had been washed and dried spontaneously combusted, caused approximately $35,000 damage to a house on Northwest Drive early Sunday.
A fire, which started when a bucket of towels that had cooking oil on them and had been washed and dried spontaneously combusted, caused approximately $35,000 damage to a house on Northwest Drive early Sunday. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

One Whatcom family’s unfortunate loss in a fire is a lesson for all as laundry caused an estimated $35,000 worth of damage to the outside and attic of a home on Northwest Drive early Sunday.

“Even old fire chiefs can learn things from time to time,” Whatcom County Fire District 7 Chief Larry Hoffman told The Bellingham Herald.

The cause of the fire, Hoffman said, was determined to be a bucket of rags that had cooking oil on them that were recently washed and taken out of a clothes dryer and spontaneously combusted.

Apparently, Hoffman said, one of the residents of the house brought some towels home from a restaurant that had regular cooking oil on them. She washed them twice and dried them and found they still smelled of oil and then put them in the bucket while they were still warm.

“It was news to us, too,” Hoffman said. “But I was talking to one of the fire investigators who said he had just been in a class where they were talking about it. I guess it’s one of those new things we’re just learning about.”

Hoffman said it’s likely to become more of a problem recently because some oils — even vegetable oil — contain more fats and dryers are heating to higher temperatures, leaving higher residual heat in garments once they are removed and left in a pile.

“The suggestion is every time you take a towel out of a driver, give it a quick shake,” Hoffman told The Herald, pointing out that it was even more important if you believe there is oil on the towel. “That should alleviate enough of the residual heat.”

Whatcom County Fire Investigator Mitch Nolze also suggested letting the dryer fully cool before removing clothes or towels from the dryer and not collecting them in a tight wad.

“You can wash things three, four, five, six, seven times and there will still be enough oil in there,” Nolze told The Herald. “And with the heat in dryers and the cotton surfaces, that maintains heat for a while and can combust. It’s one of those things we’re just learning about.”

In Sunday’s case, crews responded to the 5500 block of Northwest Drive at 1:47 a.m., according to Pulse Point. Hoffman said the fire burned the outside of the house and got into the attic, where it caused “extensive damage.” Fortunately, Hoffman said the two residents were evacuated safely.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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