Spontaneous Combustion Destroys Purcellville-Area Barn

A fire started by the spontaneous combustion of mulch and potting soil from a flowerbox destroyed a large barn near Purcellville on Tuesday, the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue Fire Marshal’s Office reported.

Just before 4:30 p.m. Sept. 20, a 911 caller reported a barn on fire behind a home on Lincoln Road, and said the flames were approaching several large propane tanks. Hazardous Materials response units were added to the call.

Fire and rescue crews found an approximately 40-foot by 80-foot barn with significant smoke and fire. They would remain on scene for an extended period extinguishing hot spots and assisting the Fire Marshal’s Office investigation, according to the department. There were no reported injuries but damage was estimated at $532,000.

The Fire Marshal’s Office determined the fire was accidental, caused by spontaneous combustion of mulch and potting soil in a flowerbox.

 “Spontaneous combustion can happen when a decomposing, organic material such as mulch generates enough heat to ignite without an outside source,” System Chief Keith H. Johnson stated. “Because of this, a large or compacted area of mulch can create sufficient heat to spontaneously combust. Remember, in all cases, mulch fires are more likely to start when the weather is hot, and it has been dry for an extended period.”

Fires that start in landscaping mulch or other organic planting materials can spread quickly into shrubbery, up exterior walls and into buildings.

The fire-rescue service recommends precautions to prevent mulch fires at homes and businesses. Those include maintaining at least 18 inches of clearance between the edge of the mulch bed and combustible building materials, such as exterior vinyl siding and decks; keeping landscaped mulch beds moist if possible; remembering the hot and dry spells and windy conditions allow mulch fires to start more readily; using non-combustible materials like river rock or pea gravel for the first 18 inches around the base of a building with combustible siding and around gas and electrical meters; considering brick or non-combustible exterior siding; using only approved receptables to dispose of smoking materials; and immediately reporting any smoke or fire by calling 911. 

For more information on fire prevention, visit loudoun.gov/firemarshal or contact Public Education Manager Lisa Braun at 571-258-3222.

One thought on “Spontaneous Combustion Destroys Purcellville-Area Barn

  • 2022-09-21 at 2:50 pm
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    What a terrible (and expensive) tragedy. I never heard of a mulch fire. Just one more thing to worry about. We’ve been having so many fires in Loudoun this summer. Here’s hoping the autumn season is safer!

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