Fire warning from landlord after tumbled-dried tea towels ‘spontaneously combust’

Burnt tea towels

The owner of a country pub near Kettering says he feels ‘very lucky’ not to have suffered worse damage after a pile of tea towels ‘spontaneously combusted’ in a washing basket.

Landlord Joe Buckley, who owns The Tollemache Arms in Harrington, was keen to warn other catering businesses about this unusual fire risk, following an incident at his pub on August 4.

Shortly before 1pm, Crews from Kettering and Desborough Fire Stations were called to reports of smoke coming from the pub.

Firefighters investigated the source of the smoke and found it to be originating from a pile of tea towels and cloths which had been freshly laundered and tumble-dried.

After the towels were collected from the tumble-drier, they were then put into a washing basket and placed downstairs in the pub.

Mr Buckley said: “Every week when we do our laundry it is the same routine. I tumble-dried them and left them in the basket and went out. They started smouldering and were like that for three hours. We were so lucky there was no fire damage.”

Mr Buckley explained that one of the Harrington villagers had seen smoke and heard their smoke alarm going off so called 999 and also telephoned him to let him know what was happening.
He explained: “Smoke had been pouring out of every hole in the building and we couldn’t see through any of the windows. Just 10 minutes longer and who knows what could have happened.”

The incident resulted in some moderate smoke damage to the pub ceiling, but no fire damage.

Mr Buckley said: “We are close to a fantastic bunch of locals in a small village so I was lucky it was noticed by them.

“I have always done our laundry and use a boil wash but since this happened I have outsourced the washing and have taken that cost on board, which has given me more peace of mind.”

Although the phenomenon of this type of spontaneous combustion is very rare, there are nationally reported cases of significant damage being caused to different premises.

These types of fires can happen when tea towels still contain residue fats or grease, despite having been washed. If they are then taken from the tumble dryer and piled up, they may still hold the heat within the centre of the stack. Even when washed at high temperatures, residues can still remain.

The combination of heat, cooking fats and oxygenating chemicals from stain removing detergent products can create a chemical reaction, causing towels to start smouldering and catch fire. When piled, heat has nowhere to escape, which can result in the ignition point being reached.

Although rare, NFRS has attended other incidents of this type so firefighters are keen to warn business owners.

Watch Manager Graham Dexter of Kettering Fire Station said: “This is thankfully an unusual set of circumstances in which cloths ignite without any obvious source of ignition. Because of its rarity, many people have little knowledge that this kind of reaction is even a possibility.

“A key piece of advice we would give to people who launder cloths such as tea towels which could have come into contact with cooking oils, is to air laundry first, before folding, to allow any heat from the dryer to escape.”

Fire prevention tips:

  • Avoid placing freshly dried laundry which may have come into contact with greases or fat into stacks or piles
  • Ensure laundry has an opportunity to cool down before it is folded. Air it first before folding, to allow the heat to escape
  • Always wash tea towels/other similar purpose cloths on a hot wash
  • Do not leave damp washing in a hot or warm tumble dryer
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