ASK THE HORT AGENT
Question Are mulches really a fire hazard?
Answer Not according to the National Fire Protection Association. From 2000 through 2004, fires related to mulch don’t even register on the national statistics. Most residential fires begin in the kitchen (32%). Heating related fires were the only other cause in double digits (16%). Other residential fires were related to electricity, candles, dryers or trash piles. Cigarettes and alcohol were only involved in a small percentage of fires (4%), but the largest percentage of fire related deaths involved cigarettes and/or alcohol. Basically, a chef is more likely to burn your house down, but a drunk smoker is more likely to kill somebody in a fire.
Of course, the only fire that matters is the one at your house. Regardless of where home fires actually start, people feel like they have more control over potential kitchen fires than a landscape fire. This perception creates a need to question the flammability of mulch.
Research at The Ohio State University compared the flammability of various mulch materials. Using the “torch” test, ground rubber products were found to be the most flammable. Fires in these types of mulches spread the fastest and were the most difficult to contain. Rubber mulches are primarily used in playground areas. Hmmmmm. Pine and oat straw also did poorly on the torch test. I would suggest you be careful when handling a torch around pine straw mulch or pine forests (which account for thousands of acres covered with pine straw).
Using the “cigarette” test, the most flammable mulches were compost and ground pallets. Luckily, compost and ground pallets are not common mulch materials in North Carolina. Pine straw and pine bark were not readily ignited by cigarettes.
Homes and businesses may want to consider providing extinguishing containers and non-flammable mulch (like rocks or brick chips) around outdoor smoking or cooking areas. Preventing fires in the landscape is a design challenge which can be solved by making small changes. Judging by the number of kitchen fires, design time may be better spent in the kitchen. For kitchen fire safety tips, visit http://www.stayingalive.ca/kitchen_safety.html
The benefits of using mulch include water conservation, temperature regulation and weed suppression. The recent drought has certainly underscored the value of mulch usage.
Your mulch could be a serious fire hazard if you make your cigarette addicted uncle go outside to drink his Molotov cocktails.
Gary L. Pierce
Horticulture Extension Agent