How Do Fires Start and Spread So Quickly?

By Hannah Cheshire

Fire is a constant threat to buildings across the UK, and once a blaze starts it can spread rapidly, growing from even the smallest ignition point to an all-consuming fire within a matter of seconds.

Once a fire grows it’s very difficult to stop, carrying with it the potential to not only cause fatalities through contact with the flames, but also via smoke inhalation, falling debris and structural damage.

Being aware of the potential hazards in a property will go a long way towards preventing unnecessary blazes and protecting those inside the building.

In this article, we’ll be looking at some of the most common causes of fire and how and why a fire can spread so quickly.


How Many Recorded Fires Are there in the UK Annually?

According to Home Office statistics, there were 36,283 fires in the UK in 2018/19.


How Many Deaths Are Caused by Fire in the UK Annually?

There were 316-fire related deaths during 2018/19.


What Are the Most Common Causes of Fires in the UK?

The most common causes of accidental fires in the UK, according to the same 2018/19 Home Office statistics, by incident were:

  • Cooking appliances: 2340
  • Cigarettes: 459
  • Other electrical appliances: 397
  • Electrical distribution: 321
  • Candles: 310
  • Space heaters: 197
  • Lighters: 70
  • Central and water heating appliances: 33
  • Blowlamps and welding equipment: 24
  • Matches: 17


How Many Fires Are Caused by People?

67% or 17,843 of accidental blazes in the UK during 2018/19 were caused by human activity, such as cooking and negligent use of equipment.

25% or 6,494 of accidental fires were caused by non-human factors, such as chimney fires and faulty equipment or appliances.


How Does a Fire Spread so Quickly?

For a fire to begin, oxygen, a fuel source and heat must all be present at once. The heat source must reach a high enough temperature to ignite, and with plenty of fuel and oxygen to feed the blaze in the surrounding area, a fire can develop with alarming speed.

Once the fire begins, there are three ways in which it can spread:

  • Convection
  • Conduction
  • Radiation

Convection is the most dangerous way that a fire can spread through a building. The heat generated by a fire naturally rises, but in an enclosed space, this heat is entrapped by the ceiling. The heat will then travel horizontally, fanning the fire across the entire room, engulfing it in flames within moments. Convection is the most common cause of fire in domestic and commercial properties.

Conduction refers to the dispersal of heat through interaction between materials. Some materials, such as metal, for example, are excellent conductors of heat. So a fire in a kitchen, for instance, may transfer conduction heat through items such as metal appliances and cooking equipment, thereby creating the vehicle for the flames to travel. Conduction can be responsible for spreading a fire from room to room in larger properties, particularly if the heat causes the failure of load-bearing structures.

Radiation transfers heat via airborne electromagnetic waves. Heat radiates in every available direction until it reaches an object that absorbs it. Radiation is capable of spreading fire from building to building, igniting combustible materials, and even smashing windows, thereby gaining access to the interior of neighbouring properties.


Limiting the spread of fire

From a fire management point of view, particularly in a
commercial setting, it’s crucial to consider what does and doesn’t facilitate the spread of a fire. This will mean investigating everything from the materials used within the construction of the property itself, to the items stored or used onsite.

Being aware of how a blaze can start is the single most crucial factor in preventing the spread, and therefore, the damage caused and the threat to life. For example, an industrial premise that stores and uses
hazardous chemicals should ensure that these chemicals are isolated from potential ignition sources.

This is why it’s so important to focus on fire safety and training in any commercial setting. As we’ve discussed already, fire moves with such a destructive force, which means it has the potential to destroy a business and worse still, cause fatalities.

If you have any questions about anything we’ve covered in
this blog, or you’re interested in our industry-leading fire prevention software, please don’t hesitate to contact us today.


Hannah Cheshire | Head of Marketing

Favourite superhero: Wolverine

Favourite sport: Ice hockey

Favourite music genre: Punk rock / Alternative rock

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