WENTWORTH — Imagine seeing a towel burst into flames for no apparent reason.

It’s actually not that uncommon in Rockingham County.

We’re serious.

Going as far back as the 1990s, firefighters in Rockingham County have had to deal with the spontaneous combustion of ... towels.

You can stop laughing now.

“This has happened four times in the last year and we can name a bunch in the past,” Rockingham County Fire Marshal Robert Cardwell said.

In March, an igniting towel destroyed a home in Madison’s Hunstville neighborhood.

Towels have caught fire sitting in dryers, while folded in linen closets and even after being shoved into a duffle bag.

There is a reason for this, according to Reidsville Fire Marshal Jay Harris.

It starts with someone using a towel to clean up spilled cooking oil.

Then the towel goes into a washer. If cold water is used, that’s the first problem — it won’t break up all the oil.

Most detergents aren’t strong enough to remove the oil.

Once the towel is taken out of the dryer, it gets folded and stored. Another problem.

According to Rockingham County fire officials, the folds in the towels insulate dryer heat, which interacts with what’s left of the cooking oil.

And that creates a fire.

For obvious reasons, restaurants see a lot of these types of fires.

Harris said his department once received a call of a smoking bag at a restaurant. When firefighters arrived, they began pulling towels out of the bag. Once they came in contact with air, the towels burst into flames.

“It had heated itself to the point where it reached ignition temperatures,” Harris said.

Recently, a fire at a Stoneville laundromat started when towels from a local restaurant were in a dryer.

Harris said he’s seen towels catch fire days after being used to soak up linseed oil. The towels were put in a closet before igniting.

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Contact Danielle Battaglia at (336) 373-4476 and follow dbattaglianr on Twitter. 

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