SPRING LAKE TWP. — Marti Wiersma said it was probably a good thing she procrastinated putting away her mess Saturday night.
A few hours earlier could have meant losing her house instead of just her garage, and possibly her life.
Wiersma picked up a bunch of rags that she used in a wood refinishing project at around 10:30 p.m. She put them in a zip-lock bag and in the garbage can located just outside her garage. She had meant to do that several hours earlier.
On Sunday morning, her neighbor awakened her by pounding on her front door. Her attached garage was on fire.
Wiersma and her children got out of the house with their dog and cat.
Firefighters from Spring Lake, Ferrysburg and Crockery Township responded to the 7 a.m. call for help at the house located in the 15000 block of Leonard Road in Spring Lake Township.
“There were fire trucks all over the place. All three stalls were involved,” Wiersma said Monday evening as she recounted the horror from her home. “The smoke was billowing in the breezeway. (Spring Lake Township Fire Chief Brian Sipe) said it was just short of flashing over.”
Wiersma said her neighbors are normally early risers, but one of them told her they don’t usually open the curtains right away. But, for some reason, she did that morning and saw the smoke.
Wiersma called her neighbors her guardian angels.
The homeowner said that she and her daughter worked over the weekend to finish some tiger wood with a special oil.
“That was going to be my shiplap for my breezeway I’m enclosing,” she explained.
They moved the oiled wood inside the garage because of the threat of rain, but Wiersma didn’t get around to picking up the rags until later Saturday night. Wiersma said if she had put the rags away earlier, the fire might have started a lot earlier and nobody would have been awake to notice. If she had left the rags in the driveway or just hung them out to dry somewhere, there might not have been a fire.
“It’s a teachable moment,” Wiersma said. “The can said flammable. I didn’t know it was combustible, too.”
Wiersma said she read the information on the can of oil far enough to know that she had to stir it every so often. She didn’t realize that the coated rags could self-combust and start a fire.
“There’s certain ways you dispose of rags when you use oil and stain,” Wiersma said she learned after a conversation with the fire chief.
Wiersma admitted that she had not read all of the information.
“It has to be the right circumstances, too,” she said. “It was hot out. I threw them in a bag and threw it in the garbage.”
Wiersma complimented the firefighters for so quickly putting out the fire and saving her house.
Still, it was hard to sleep there Sunday night with the worry of a possible reignition. Fortunately, nothing happened.
Sipe and fire investigator Tim Raha were on the scene Tuesday morning.
After digging through debris on the northwest corner of the garage, the investigators agreed that discarded rags had caused the fire.
"Because the rags were in very a fairly tight bundle, a chemical reaction occurred with the stain on the rags and created enough heat where it spontaneously combusted," Sipe said. "The fire extended to the contents in the garbage can and then the fire grew big enough where it went up into the soffit of the garage."
"It is extremely important to know that when throwing away used stain-soaked rags, take a metal container, fill it with water and then put the rags in it," the fire chief said. "It is important that anytime you are using a stain, in particular with something that contains linseed oil, that you read all the safety precautions associated with the staining process that are labeled on the can."
Sipe said in this fire, stain soaked rags were put into a plastic zip lock bag and put into a garbage can that was located on the outside of the garage. Because the rags were in very a fairly tight bundle, a chemical reaction occurred with the stain on the rags and created enough heat where it spontaneously combusted.
"Talking with Mrs. Wiersma, she is already using this opportunity spread the word of the potential dangers of discarded rags used for staining, information we hope will resonate with people and help prevent further occurrences of related fires," Sipe said.
Sipe said that the garage is a total loss, there is smoke damage in the home and there is fire damage to a travel trailer that was parked in front of the garage.
Wiersma said that she is insured and plans to rebuild the garage.