Burning down the house: Exploring the flammability of spider webs and houses

I've always been a pyromaniac of sorts (which the concise Oxford moderately describes as 'an obsessive desire to set fire to things.'), I think the essence of fire appeals to everyone, to varying degrees. It has a life of it's own, it fluctuates according to the wind, it contains a multitude of colors, varying according to its heat and the object being burnt.

I have other tales of fire to tell, which may be told on another day, but this particular one is my current worst -- and it's recent enough for me to not plead the innocence of youth :-p

Many of my more spectular feats of flame were learnt from my tech school associates who probably had them handed down to them from previous generations...

One of these is the great fun you can have with flammable aerosols. Conveniently, the manufacturers of these products record the possible level of fun in a little red diamond below the instructions for normal use. I've found anything at or above level 3 to be good value.

When I first saw this it was done with a straw-type object attached to the end of the aerosol outlet with a cigarette lighter providing ignition. This worked fairly well until the straw-type object started to melt, IIRC.

I've had much better experience using matches -- the propellant ignites easily and the flame is quickly extinguished by the stream of whatever is supposed to be propelled (eg. fly spray).

By some means or other I discovered a long time ago that spider webs are quite flammable. This is certainly the easiest and most pleasurable way to clean out a web-infested area. I recently cleaned off a whole section of my folks' screen door with a couple of matches and some very nice blasts from a level 3 fly spray.

A few days later, I was back at our house, and the gas stove lighter (one of those little "gas match" things with a flame ranging up to several inches long) caught my eye. After playing with it for a few seconds, an idea came to me. Still flushed with the success of my previous web cleaning endeavours, it struck me that the rangehood (stove heating vent) was quite dirty with spider webs, and could do with a clean. In this old house, the vent was just a wooden thing that led directly to the ceiling, where presumably the heat is disappated through the roof. In restrospective consideration, it's a short-sighted design that probably wouldn't get far these days.

Anyway, I looked up the vent and saw that, yes indeed, it was covered in old, flame-tempting spider webs, all ready for a big clean with my little flame... The next part of the story is best told as the series of thoughts that ran through my head:

Hmm, those webs are burning extraordinarly well.
The flames are going upwards.
The flames aren't going out.
I should put this out before it gets worse.
*rushed look for closest fire quelling object -- tea towel!*
*bats flames with mild success, extinguishing the majority of flames for at least half a second*
*realises that this isn't working, and we have a small fire on our hands*
The flames are continuing to go upwards.
IIRC, insulation is quite flammable given a nice naked flame.
Oh dear. I've just set the house on fire!

I ran to the manhole that gave access to the roof, opening it and climbing in to the roof in a smooth series of motions that would have made any athlete proud, in a less critical situation. I was shouting to mum, telling her I had set the house on fire, and to get me some water. Visions of half the ceiling being alight were running through my terror-stricken mind.

As I entered the roof, it was with some relief that I noted that, whilst, the insulation was alight, only about two square feet of the roof was currently ablaze with flames, ranging up to mere six inches in height... Clearly I had to act quickly or the whole ceiling would be alight.

"Mum, where's the water?" I shouted, since, despite my fluid[1] motions, it had surely been at least a minute since I had first shouted to her.

Obviously, the water wasn't going to get here in time[2], and I needed to look for something else. Something to bat out the fire. Something I could grab, up here, in the roof. A stack of tiles stood to one side, but I didn't like my chances of waving one of them around without causing more damage than the current crisis. Fortunately, inspiration struck again, and I picked up an insulation bat and batted out the fire with it. This worked very effectively and the fire was quickly out. At least, it seemed to be. But how can you know? Any fireperson will tell you that fires can smolder for days. So I grabbed the water I had finally been given, and threw it over where the flames had been. I did it again, then I climbed down, cleaned up, and hoped that we didn't wake up in the middle of the night with half the house burnt down.

We didn't.

1: I would like those who know me well to note that I distinctly avoided a perfect opportunity to pun here :-)
2: I later discovered that the water was attempting to be handed to me on top of the roof, rather than in through the ceiling. Unfortunately, those involved didn't know where the manhole was...

Further reading

Read other anecdotes about time, gates and how we only live once - or laugh at some of my haircuts. Or take a look at my essays and books.

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