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A fire broke out during the evening in a two-storey commercial building in Sydney. Smoke and flames were seen coming from the roof by neighbours and passers-by, who called the Fire Brigade.


The ground floor contained shops and there was a staircase up to the first floor business, which had  a number of rooms of various sizes used for yoga classes, beauty therapy, tanning and nail treatments, opening off an internal hallway.  There was also a small staff kitchen with a laundry alcove. The owner and staff had left the business around two hours before the fire was discovered.


Firefighters broke into the locked-up building and quickly established that the fire was burning on the upper level, with no significant damage to the shops below. Some of the upper floor ceiling had burnt through and part of the roof had fallen into the smaller beauty and nail treatment rooms, as well as the kitchen.


Early suspicions of a deliberately fire in the tanning room were eliminated because the high level fire patterns showed spread into that room from the hallway, not the reverse. The ceiling joists in the main area of damage were all burnt from below, showing that the fire did not start in the roof space above the hallway where some wiring had recently been replaced. 


The greatest fire damage was to the treatment rooms used for manicures, waxing and tanning, the hallway and the kitchen. Detailed excavation of these areas showed no low-level burning and no pre-fire disturbance of the contents. Potential ignition sources including the wax heater, spray tan booth and electrically adjusted couch were examined and eliminated, along with downlights fitted in the ceiling and fragrance burners stored in the cabinets.


Our investigators found that the fire had started within the kitchen area and spread out into the hallway and other rooms off it. The greatest area of damage to the roof, where the flames had first had burnt through the ceiling, coincided with the laundry alcove at the end of the kitchen. There was severe burning to the upper half of the walls but much less below that, indicating a likely area of origin approximately 1.2 metres above floor level.


In that general area, there were three possible sources of fire. One was a microwave oven on top of a cabinet in the kitchen, next to the alcove, but this was found to be unplugged at the time of the fire. 


On the end wall of the alcove was an electrical sub-board which contained some severely fire damaged wiring and circuit breakers. Although there was electrical arc damage to the conductors, this could be explained by a fire attacking the energised board. 


Hanging from the alcove wall was a severely fire-damaged electric clothes dryer, which had been plugged in and switched on at the socket outlet on the wall below. 


Information was obtained from the staff that towels from the treatment rooms had been laundered that morning and then placed in the dryer, which was switched on with a 1.5 hour drying program.  However, the program was interrupted after approximately one hour when a member of staff switched off the dryer at the front panel but left the towels inside with the door closed. The owner and staff left the building around an hour later.


This meant that there had been no cooling cycle and the towels were not removed and spread out to dissipate residual heat. Under these circumstances, items such as cotton towels can react with air and self-heat, undergoing thermal runaway to the point of ignition. This is made more likely if there are residues of natural oils or similar materials on them, which can also undergo self-heating at temperatures above ambient, still air conditions and thermal insulation.


Further information on the treatment regimes offered and the activities of the morning indicated that the towels were likely contaminated with almond and other plant oils before being washed.  Depending on the thoroughness of the wash cycle, it is possible that some of the oils remained on the towels when they entered the dryer.


When using a clothes dryer, it is important to ensure that all plant and animal oils have been removed during the washing process and to allow the dryer to complete its cooling down cycle at the end of the program. It is also advisable to remove the contents immediately and spread or hang them out to finish cooling.  

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