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Spontaneous Combustion Fires Cause Trouble in Eastern Iowa

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CORALVILLE, Iowa — A recent string of spontaneous combustion fires in Eastern Iowa has fire officials urging safety from Cedar Rapids to Iowa City.

Spontaneous combustion fires can start without a spark. They’re commonly caused by oil soaked rags in restaurants or households.

“It’s the oil on the rag, as it’s drying is producing heat and it catches the rag itself on fire,” said Orey Schwitzer, fire prevention officer with the Coralville Fire Department.

Last week, firefighters said flames ignited by spontaneous combustion did “significant” damage to the Chrome Horse Saloon in Cedar Rapids. Iowa City Fire Marshall Brian Greer determined the fire that did about $30,000 in damage to the Hamburg Inn No. 2 in May also started without a spark.

Schwitzer said products that spontaneously combust are marked on the warning label. He said when using such products, never put rags in a pile or box, which have come in contact with the oils.

A common household oil that can cause spontaneous combustion is linseed oil, often used to protect wood furniture. Restaurants frequently work with vegetable oils or grease, which also can ignite without a spark.

Schwitzer said restaurant owners should always make sure they’re washing rags with detergents that will completely rid a rag of oils. That can be done by carefully reading labels and doing some research. He said homeowners should spread linseed soaked oil rags out on the ground and not move them until they’re completely dry, which sometimes can take several days. Merely throwing them away, or rinsing them out, can still cause spontaneous combustion to occur.

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