Flames and thick, black smoke could be seen billowing from a balcony at the Pacific Surf building along English Bay's waterfront late Sunday afternoon.
Vancouver Fire Rescue Chief Darrell Reid said in a tweet that crews extinguished the fire on the 15th floor of the building, at Pacific Street and Jervis Street. No firefighters or residents were injured.
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West End apartment fire caused by self-heating oil rags left on balcony
On Tuesday, fire officials said linseed-oil rags that had been used to stain furniture were to blame for the fire.
“The fire damage was limited to the suite of origin, and that was just due to the quick action of the first arriving crews that got up there, got the door open and got it knocked it down,” he says. “Considering what the fire looked like upon arrival, it’s shocking that it’s not more.”
Oil-soaked rags sparked West End highrise blaze: Vancouver fire officials
Linseed oil, or flaxseed oil, dries through the same chemical process that generates fire: oxidation. As the oil comes into contact with oxygen, it generates heat. A pile of rags acts as an insulator and heat builds up in the cloth until the heap eventually ignites.
"The rags were laid on top of some cardboard on top of some wood decking," a fire official told reporters on Tuesday. "What exacerbated this was it was an extremely hot day and it was facing the sun."
Fire crews said the cardboard was leaning on a glass window, which shattered as heat from the fire grew. Flames leapt into the suite but didn't spread far, according to officials, due to the quick response from fire crews and the fact that the building is made of concrete.
Fire crews recommend laying linseed oil rags flat on a non-flammable surface, like a concrete driveway, on their own and away from the house as they dry. Rags and other applicators like paint brushes should be stored in a non-combustible container with a tight lid — also on a non-flammable surface.
Vancouver Fire Rescue says it has responded to 39 calls for fires started by spontaneous combustion since 2016.
The fire department estimates around 10 people on the floor affected by smoke damage have been displaced for about a month as a result of the fire.
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Fire officials say Sunday’s three-alarm fire in Vancouver’s West End was caused by improperly stored linseed oil rags.
The fire burned in a 15th-floor suite of the 23-storey concrete Pacific Surf apartments at 1275 Pacific St. on Sunday afternoon.
Capt. Jonathan Gormick with Vancouver Fire Rescue Services said investigators concluded the fire was caused by linseed oil rags that “were not stored in a non-combustible container.”
Assistant Chief Ray Bryant said linseed oil, which is used for staining furniture, has a “self-heating property” and rags covered in the natural oil need to be stored in a proper container.
“In this case, they were rolled up in a ball,” he said. “When you do that with a self-heating oil…it can’t release the heat that’s generated as the product starts to dry.
“If you roll it up in a ball and put it in a Ziploc bag, which a lot of people think will keep the oxygen out of it, it creates heat within the bag…it will continue to self-generate heat within that ball that you’ve rolled that rag up into.
“You’ll get temperatures of 400 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit within that rag at which time it will start to ignite, and that’s what happened in this case.”
Bryant said the rags were stored on the balcony, which ignited some cardboard that was placed against a window. The glass shattered and the fire entered the suite.
The fact that it was a hot day and the rags were facing the sun helped accelerate the blaze, Bryant said, but the oils would have heated up naturally on their own.
Bryant said the easiest way to store linseed oil rags is to lay them flat on a non-flammable surface so they will dry naturally and become hard. Once they are hard and fully dried, they can be safely placed in the garbage. If you wish to re-use the rags, they should be stored in a metal container with a lid. They can also be stored in a bucket of water.
Gormick said fire damage was limited to the suite where it began, but several suites on the 15th and 16th floors suffered smoke damage, leaving 10 residents displaced. There were no injuries.