In our last post, we discussed how oil-soaked rags can spontaneously combust if they are not disposed of properly. We also reviewed fire safety guidance that can help to prevent an incident from occurring in your facility. The handling of oil-soaked rags should be taken very seriously, because if not, the result could be catastrophic.

The largest high-rise fire in modern US history started as a result of the spontaneous combustion of oil-soaked rags left in a pile by contractors working in the building. The fire occurred in Philadelphia on February 23, 1991 on the 22nd floor of the 38-story Meridian Bank Building, also known as One Meridian Plaza. The fire was reported to the Philadelphia Fire Department at approximately 10:40 pm and burned for more than 19 hours. The fire started in a vacant 22nd floor office in a pile of linseed oil-soaked rags left by a contractor and resulted in the death of three firefighter and injuries to 24 other firefighters. The 12 alarms brought 51 engine companies, 15 ladder companies, 11 specialized units, and over 300 firefighters to the scene. It was the largest high-rise office building fire in modern American history – completely consuming eight floors of the building – and was controlled only when it reached a floor that was protected by automatic sprinklers.

This fire caused an estimated $100 million (in 1991 dollars) in direct property loss, not to mention equal or greater loss through business interruption. Litigation resulting from the fire amounted to an estimated $4 billion in civil damage claims. Twenty months after the fire, this building,  one of Philadelphia’s tallest and situated on Penn Square directly across from City Hall, still stood unoccupied and fire-scarred, its structural integrity in question. The building was ultimately demolished.

There are many other examples of the dangers of the improper storage and disposal of oil-soaked rags. Here are just a few:

  • In 1991, a mixed-use facility in California suffered over $750,000 in damages as a result of a fire ignited by self-heating in a pile of improperly disposed of oil-soaked rags. According to fire investigators, the rags were used to apply teak oil to furniture and were disposed of in a plastic bucket. After smoldering for an unknown amount of time, the rags reached their ignition temperature by self-heating, and ignited. The fire spread to an area that housed a large quantity of teak patio furniture, which also helped to fuel the fire.
  • In 1993, a fire controlled by a single sprinkler, caused approximately $35,000 in damages to a paint distribution warehouse in California, when oil-soaked rags ignited spontaneously by self-heating. During the investigation, fire officials found cloth rags and open gallon cans of oil-based stain. Officials believe the fire began spontaneously among the oil-soaked rags, spread to nearby wooden pallets, and grew until a single sprinkler head operated, controlling the fire until firefighters arrive on scene.
  • In 2004, self-heating occurred in rags stored in a spray booth area of a two-story metal products plant, which caused a fire that spread throughout the facility and throughout the roof. The facility had no automatic detection or suppression systems and suffered $5,500,000 in damages ($3,000,000 to the building and $2,500,000 to its contents).
  • In 2007, a California cabinet shop suffered $200,000 in damages when a stack of oil-soaked rags left under a staircase ignited due to self-heating. The fire occurred while the shop was closed for the weekend, in an area of the facility where wooden cabinets were stained and finished. Thankfully, a passerby alerted the fire department, which responded within a few minutes to extinguish the fire.

As you can see, improperly disposing of oily rags presents a serious fire risk due to the phenomenon of self-heating leading to spontaneous combustion.  However, these types of fires can be prevented by always following these simple steps:

  1. Place oily rags in approved storage containers with self-closing lids while awaiting removal from the site and proper disposal.
  2. Remove oily rags from the site and dispose of them safely as soon as possible.