Cigarettes + gasoline = explosion?

Only in the movies, according to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. In fact, forensic fire experts at the ATF’s research laboratory have found that it’s almost impossible to set something, or somebody, ablaze with a lit cigarette, even when they’ve been doused in gasoline. Richard Tontarski investigated one of Hollywood’s favorite cliches and – surprise – found it wanting.

[H]e and colleagues experimented. They dropped burning cigarettes into trays of petrol. They sprayed a fine mist of petrol at a lighted cigarette. They even used a vacuum device to produce the higher temperature (900-950C) of a cigarette being sucked. In more than 2,000 attempts the petrol did not ignite.

This is the stuff we thriller writers need to know. It not only puts me at ease about playing with gasoline, but helps me get things right when planning my next fireball.

Fictional fireball. Fictional.

Note, however, that Tontarski wasn’t merely mythbusting for fun:

He began looking into the problem because arson suspects frequently claim a petrol fire was started by accident. “The person claims, ‘I accidentally threw gasoline on my girlfriend, she was smoking and she burst into flames’,” he said.

Because that sort of accidental gasoline-throwing fiasco happens to all of us, right? “Frequently.” Nasty.

Anyway, since the smokes are in the clear on this one, I offer this slogan to the tobacco companies, free. “Cigarettes – here’s one way they can’t kill you.”

UPDATE: A reader emails,

Hang on, gonna light a cig while I bathe in gasoline.

Ah, that’s better. Been wanting to do that for a long while, but feared for my health. Good to know it’s safe to indulge.

Always happy to help.

15 responses to “Cigarettes + gasoline = explosion?

  1. that is good to know. one less reason to convence my dad not to smoke.

  2. No! That means that the best scene is “Zoolander” is fake! “Wake me up, before you go” KABLOOEY! I am shocked and dismayed.

    Oh, and speaking of kabooms…why is it that we never hear the Hollywood sages mention one of the possible primary reasons for global warming: massive explosions in every movie or TV show where there is the slightest excuse to blow something up.

    I know, I know, they each got “green tickets” at the Academy Awards to salve their consciences…but really. Has anyone done a study on how pyrotechnics have aided and abetted this thermocrisis? Mr. Gore, would you, in your overheated house, like to comment?

  3. There was a mythbusters episode a while ago on Discovery where they showed you couldn’t blow up a petrol tank with bullets. Also saw one where they showed firing a bullet into the air didn’t have enough speed to be necessarily fatal when it comes back down – that’s related to terminal velocity.

    Just finished reading China Lake and really enjoyed it. Looking forward to starting the rest of the series.

  4. You gotta love lines like this: “But if you find yourself tied up and doused in petrol don’t worry if all your assailant has is a lighted cigarette:”

    Right, I’ll just relax. Nothing to to get hot and bothered about.

  5. Being a technical sort of a guy I’d love to read that ATF’s research laboratory report if you would provide a reference. Certainly, there is a lot about the propogation of fire and explosion which is contrary to intuition.

    One thing we have to do is assess explosion risk at landfills that are generating large quantities of landfill gas, and pumping this gas and then flaring it or generating power from it.

    A lot of unsafe situations don’t arise when the layman assumes they will, and the reason being that the gas/gasoline present in the air is either above or below the explosive limit. Even when the gas/vapour is present within the exlposive range an explosion can only occur once the ignition source is sufficiently energetic/hot to initiate combustion. So, although you can spin the dice many times, the explosion or combustion may only occur rarely. The trouble is that injury can be very serious even if it happens just once!

  6. Steve, I don’t have a reference to the ATF report, unfortunately – I read about it in the article linked to above, which is The Guardian’s interview with the researcher, Richard Tontarski. But the ATF website might possibly have a link, or somebody you could contact for the information.

    So you’re an explosion safety kind of guy, huh? I’ll keep your name in my files for those times I need to keep things from blowing up on the page.

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  10. patricia christopher

    By my understanding you can not start a gasoline fire by a lite cigarette. We have a friend that was convicted on starting a fire with gas and a cigarette, in March with temps at 32 degrees

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  12. Very interesting Meg! And I’ll have to check out your books! A note on this though: I’m guessing that while gasoline itself may not be quite as instantly and explosively flammable from a heatsource like a cigarette, perhaps a potentially flammable material (e.g. paper) might become far more easily engulfed in flame if it was quite damp with gasoline and a cigarette landed on it.

    It’s pretty common to see “Suspected cause of fire was smoking materials” in the antismoking media and I always wonder how many of those are actually just from kids playing with matches that might have nothing to do with cigarettes/tobacco but were intended for candles/stoves/emergencies etc. It would be quite interesting to see some figures/graphs on the drop in fires since the manufacturers were forced to switch to Fire Safe Cigarettes. The fact that we have NOT seen headlines about that make me think it’s just another lie: the FSCs were an attempt that may have been known to be relatively worthless but they got pushed through anyway purely as an antismoking device (Since they supposedly make cigarettes less pleasant to smoke. Heh, you can bet your booties they wouldn’t have stood a chance in Hades of being approved if the tobacco companies had found that they’d made cigarettes NICER to smoke, eh?)

    – MJM

  13. It’s worth noting that most smoking-related fires at gas stations are caused while the cigarette is being lit, indicating the lighter is the ignition source (either the sparking or the flame). Also, you have to pretty close to the fumes, etc.

    So, in Supernatural when they drop a Zippo onto the gassed-up bones, that can not only cause a fire, but is probably exactly how they do the special effects for the scenes. 🙂

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