Story by Captain Max Brown
When someone tells you that there are no “ordinary” fires and not to take any fire, no matter the size, for granted – heed their warning. You never know what even a small fire might be hiding. I just wish we had it on video as I’ve never seen anything like it and really hope not to again.
The fire was just a little over 15 years ago, late November and dark. The page came out as a possible structure fire, trash bag on the porch on fire. There were four of us on the truck and we arrived in just a couple of minutes to find that a police officer had kicked the trash bag into the flower bed in front of the porch and there was just a small fire.
We removed our SCBA’s and the Captain told us to fill the salvage bucket with water and dump it on the bag, so two of us did and this is when things changed. The water reacted with something in the trash bag and the fire grew instead of going out and it put off a lot of nasty smoke. We backed away and the Captain told us to go put on our SCBA’s and to get a shovel and bury the bag with dirt from the flower bed.
It took us just a few short minutes to have the bag buried and again things got weird. It looked kind of like lightning going across the top of the dirt but we believe it was just small flames. We began to wonder what we had gotten ourselves into when the Captain came over to us and showed us some “Poison” placards he had found on the ground towards the back side of the porch.
Now we had the bag buried, it was having some kind of reaction, and we didn’t know what we had because it was under dirt in a bag that was burning. As we discussed it a gentleman came up to us and explained that there were poison tablets to kill insects in the bag and that they are moisture reactive and the more water the more they react. He advised us that he thought foam was dry enough to smother the fire so we stretched a hand line from the truck to the fire and covered it in a heavy layer of foam and that is when the volcano, or at least that’s what it looked like, occurred.
The foam blanket would raise up in the shape of a volcano and a flame would shoot out of the center, it would go out and then shortly repeat this process. It did this several times before it had one last larger longer lasting flame and then it stopped. We stayed on scene for a while to make sure everything was okay and while waiting we got the story from the man who had told us what the tablets were.
His sister was moving into the residence and wanted to kill all bugs in the house. He told us that he worked for a grain elevator and they get these tubes of Hydrogen Phosphide tablets to place in the grain and they create Phosgene gas, I believe it was, which in turn poisons the bugs in the grain, killing them. He had placed several small aluminum tins of these tablets, which react with the moisture in the air, around inside the house and told his sister to wait 24 hours before going back in and cleaning up the tins. This would also give the house time to be safe for her and her kids to be in.
She apparently couldn’t wait so she went in about eight hours later and threw the tins with the tablets into a trash bag along with some other trash and a drink cup with some ice in it. Oh and most of the “poison” placards her brother had taped to each window and both doors. She then placed the bag outside on the front porch and the ice melted and ran into the tins causing a reaction with the tablets and starting the trash in the bag on fire.
The next day the four of us that had arrived on the firetruck, a couple of volunteers and a police officer were all sent to the hospital to have chest X-rays for possible exposure. I was the only one with any injury and had a partially collapsed lung. I was X-rayed again two or three days later and the lung had re-inflated and I had no other obvious problems.
The moral to this story is that if you didn’t start the fire, you really don’t know what’s burning. It might be trash or it might be something wild, and you need to avoid as much smoke in your career as you can. Never forget that the SCBA is your friend.
Phostoxin Pellets and Tablets
The active ingredient is 55% aluminum phosphide. This solid form fumigant is packaged in tablet form, 500 tablets per aluminum flask, 14 flasks per case. Pellets are packaged 1660 per flask, 21 flasks per case. These flasks are closed with a gas-tight screw stopper, after removal of part of the container it can be resealed for further storage. Phostoxin is a restricted use pesticide for retail sale and use only by certified applicators or persons under their direct supervision and only for those uses covered by the certified applicator’s certification.