"Typically, 50 years ago, if a wool or cotton sofa was on fire you didn't see the wool or cotton sofa drip," Windsor Fire and Rescue chief training officer Paul Acton said. "So, what you now see is the synthetic material dripping. It's the oils; that's what all of the studies are finding leads to rapid fire spread and rapid pyrolysis and rapid combustion."
Kingsville Fire Chief Bob Kissner has been fighting fires for 33 years and now teaches courses on fighting fires in the modern home.
Kissner said today's house fires burn eight items faster and produce 200 times the amount of smoke that a fire would have 50 years ago.
Chris Williams, Ontario's Assistant Deputy Fire Marshall, said even 30 years ago, a person had up to an estimated eight minutes to exit their home from the time their smoke detector went off. Today, a person has less than two minutes.
"And there's not a fire department in the world that can respond to your home and rescue you in that time," Williams said.
A test by Underwriter Laboratories, a not-for-profit product safety testing and certification organization, found that an average-sized room furnished with modern products is fully engulfed in flames in three minutes. The same room, furnished with items 50 years of age took 30 minutes to do the same.
Williams said many response benchmarks established by fire departments 30 or more years ago were based on the time it took a room to reach "full involvement" or "flashover," terms that describe a room fully engulfed in flames.
Kissner said tactics on scene have changed, too.
"[Previously], it was a green light to do what we call an offensive attack. We were going to go in the building and we're going to go to the seed of the fire and put it out," Kissner said. "I believe we're on a change mode. Now, we're going to have to start thinking of going to the fire and saying, 'we're not going in until we assess all the factors and determine that it's safe to do so.'"
Williams said there are a number of modern plastics, glues and carbon-based products that cause a faster "fire growth rate."
Individual items throughout the home combust more quickly, allowing flames and smoke to engulf rooms at a faster rate.
That's why, Williams said, '"you have to react immediately to that smoke alarm."
"You have enough time to make sure you're heading to the door as quickly as possible," Williams said.
Poisonous smoke, gas
Williams said not only the heat can incapacitate a person, but so can than poisonous smoke and gas that's created.
The plastic and glue create carbon monoxide and cyanide.
"Both of these are very lethal," Williams said.
"We are a consumer oriented society," Kissner said. "We like stuff and unfortunately for us, the stuff we're putting into our houses today burns much more fiercely and produces volumes of greater amounts of smoke."