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.