Onsite ammo stores complicate firefighting

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpressonline.com

A Feb. 21 fire on Lawson Road in Darlington severely damaged the home of Hartsville Police Chief Jerry Thompson, and the challenge of combating the fire was complicated by the presence of multiple firearms and quantities of ammunition present in the house.

Darlington Fire Department Chief Pat Cavanaugh says that in cases where live ammo is “cooking off” it is regular procedure for firefighters to keep a safe distance and wet down the structure.

“We stay back about ten to fifteen feet and put water on the fire and wait until you hear the last round go off. Then you wait for a while and go in,” says Cavanaugh.

Determining when that last round has cooked off can be tricky, like listening to a bag of microwave popcorn and calculating intervals between kernel pops. That difficulty is compounded when ammo or loaded weapons are stored in multiple areas. In the Lawson Road fire, rounds were still popping some 30 minutes after fire crews arrived on scene.

Cavanaugh says centrally storing guns and rounds in a fireproof safe is the best option for storage, as many quality gun safes will protect their contents for 60 minutes to 2.5 hours in the event of a fire.

The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) has conducted studies on the “4th of July” effect of ammunition in a fire, and they write (in an informational pamphlet) that the “havoc” of these scenarios is a bit exaggerated.

“Members of fire fighting units are understandably uneasy when confronted by fires where ammunition is involved,” the pamphlet reads. “Stocks of small arms ammunition will NOT mass explode. That is to say, if one cartridge or shotshell in a carton or case is caused to fire, it will not cause other adjacent cartridges or shotshells or their packages to explode sympathetically or in a simultaneous manner.

“Tests also show that the whizzing sound heard in the vicinity of ammunition fires are caused by primers expelled from the burning cartridges. The “pops” and “bangs” are exploding primers; the propellant powders burn inefficiently and make little noise. Metallic cartridges in a fire are difficult to sustain in a burning condition once the packing materials have been consumed due to the cooling effects of the metal parts and the relatively high ratio of metal weight to smokeless powder. Only a vigorous fire around metallic ammunition stocks will cause all cartridges to burn.”

SAAMI advises storing ammo in dry, cool conditions and avoiding risky environs like kitchens, damp basements, and hot vehicles (trunks or passenger compartments) on sunny days. Ammunition can begin to degrade after prolonged exposure to temperatures as low as 150-Farenheit. Ammo salvaged from a house fire – where temps can average 1100 degrees – should be disposed of immediately.

If you have unserviceable ammunition, never return it to sales centers or attempt to sell it for salvage, as any structural compromise to the cartridges could pose a threat to any future shooters. Neither should the ammo be buried or dumped in a waterway. SAAMI advises returning it to the manufacturer or, if that is not possible, contacting them through www.SAAMI.org or writing to them at 11 Mile Hill Road, Newtown, CT 06470-2359

Author: Duane Childers

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