Smoke Explosion or Backdraft?

What is a smoke explosion? Is it the same thing as a backdraft or is it a completely different phenomenon? In one form or another I have encountered this question several times during the last week. In one case, I was asked to review a short article about an incident involving a smoke explosion that was submitted to FireRescue magazine. In another case, I was surfing the web and came across the following video titled large smoke explosion close call on What happened in this incident? Was it a smoke explosion or a backdraft?

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What’s in a Name?

For many years, the term smoke explosion was a synonym for backdraft. In fact, if you look up the definition of smoke explosion in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 921 (2007) Guide for Fire and Explosion Investigation, it says “see backdraft“. However, smoke explosion is actually a different, and in many respects more dangerous extreme fire behavior phenomenon.

Smoke explosion is described in a number of fire dynamics texts including Enclosure Fire Dynamics (Karlsson and Quintiere) and An Introduction to Fire Dynamics (Drysdale). However, Enclosure Fires by Swedish Fire Protection Engineer Lars-Göran Bengtsson provides the most detailed explanation of this phenomenon. Paraphrasing this explanation:

A smoke or fire gas explosion occurs when unburned pyrolysis products and flammable products of combustion accumulate and mix with air, forming a flammable mixture and introduction of a source of ignition results in a violent explosion of the pre-mixed fuel gases and air. This phenomenon generally occurs remote from the fire (as in an attached exposure) or after fire control.

In some cases, the fire serves as a source of ignition as it extends into the void or compartment containing the flammable mixture of smoke(fuel) and air. This was the case in Evanston, Wyoming, where two firefighters died as the result of a smoke explosion in a two-story wood frame townhouse (see National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Report F2005-13). In other cases, firefighters may unintentionally provide the source of ignition. On 26 March 2008, a Los Angeles City firefighter was killed when he attempted to force entry into an electrical room filled with smoke from a manhole fire in the adjacent street. (see LAFD News and Information). Battalion Chief John Miller, Commanding Officer of the LAFD Arson/Counter-Terrorism Section reported:

This combustible smoke accumulated in the confined area of the electrical room. When Firefighter Lovrien attempted entry into the room, a spark was generated when the composite blade of the rotary saw struck the locking mechanism of the door… Investigators have concluded that unburned combustible gases, from a fire in the electrical vault located in the street at the front of the building, accumulated in the electrical room. These products of combustion reached its explosive limit and was ignited by a spark from the forcible entry attempts

Conditions Required for a Smoke Explosion

The risk of a smoke explosion is greatest in compartments or void spaces adjacent to, but not yet involved in fire. Infiltration of smoke through void spaces or other conduits can result in a well mixed volume of smoke (fuel) and air. Smoke explosion creates a significant overpressure as the fuel and air are premixed and ignition results in a very large energy release. Several factors influence the violence of this type of explosion:

  • The degree of confinement (more confinement results in increased overpressure)
  • Mass of premixed fuel and air within the flammable range (more premixed fuel results in a larger energy release)
  • How close the mixture is to a stoichiometric concentration (the closer to an ideal mixture the faster the deflagration)

Potential Smoke Explosion Indicators

It is very difficult to predict a smoke explosion. However, the following indicators point to the potential for this phenomenon to occur:

  • Ventilation controlled fire (inefficient combustion producing substantial amounts of unburned pyrolysis products and flammable products of incomplete combustion)
  • Relatively cool (generally less than 600o C or 1112o F) smoke
  • Presence of void spaces, particularly if they are interconnected
  • Combustible structural elements
  • Infiltration of significant amounts of smoke into uninvolved compartments in the fire building or into exposures

Smoke Explosion and Backdraft

A smoke explosion requires a relatively cool mixture of fuel (smoke) and air within its flammable range to come into contact with a source of ignition. On the other hand a backdraft requires introduction of air to an hot, extremely ventilation controlled fire where the concentration of gas phase fuel (smoke) is high and oxygen concentration is low. Both result in an explosion, but the initiating event and indicators that may be observed by firefighters and fire officers are considerably different.

Have another look at the video and see what you think: Smoke explosion or backdraft? Remember that both of these phenomena can occur in a building, a compartment, or even a small void space. Look closely at the building, smoke, air track, heat, and flame (B-SAHF) indicators. Check CFBT-US Resources more information on extreme fire behavior and reading the fire.

Ed Hartin, MS, EFO, MIFireE, CFO

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6 Responses to “Smoke Explosion or Backdraft?”

  1. Blog Archive » Real “Backdraft” | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] Smoke Explosion or Backdraft? […]

  2. Blog Archive » Chicago-Extreme Fire Behavior | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] Smoke Explosion or Backdraft? […]

  3. g Cecyre Says:

    toujours les mêmes problêmes, les deux feux pas de ventilation au toit,lapetite maison , ils ont commencés à lfair eun exutoire à 20 minutes apr`s leurs arrivées sur les lieus,

    l’autre maison on voit des ouvertures partout mais pas au toit, c,est toujours pareils,

    Il faut ouvrir le toit quand il y a du feu dans un bâtiment, sinon tout refoule par l’intérieur ce qui ne sort pas refoule par le bas Effet de champignon.Le feu perce à différents et etensuite les courants-d’air font le reste et Boom.Tous devrait le savoir le ballon frame.

  4. Mitch Bycura Says:

    Smoke explosion has products of pyrolysis as ample fuel, mixing with air, and is initiated by getting to ignition temperature. Smoke explosions can be seen to have this ample black, fuel rich, smoke streaming from the building and the temperature of ignition is reached prior to detonation.

    Backdraft has products of pyrolysis and heat, and is initiated by the induction of the proper air mixture. Backdraft shows a tremendous rush of air into the structure prior to detonation.

    In my opinion, this footage is a smoke explosion. The smoke is steadily streaming out the front door. You see no sudden rush of air into the structure from this angle prior to the detonation. What is more, this fire does not appear to be air hungry but burning freely in the back of the structure and products of burning are accumulating in the front of the structure, until detonation is reached.
    Mitch Bycura
    Deputy Chief
    Tempe Fire

  5. hartin Says:


    Thanks for your comments. I would like to provide a bit of clarification. You are absolutely correct that a smoke explosion involves ignition of premixed air and fuel (smoke). However, black smoke is not typical of this phenomena. Smoke explosions often occur in areas remote from the fire and smoke color is not necessarily a significant indicator (see NIOSH Report 2008-03 regarding a well documented smoke explosion in Durango, CO). You are also correct that backdraft involves a fuel rich condition, requiring introduction of additional air to provide a flammable mixture. However, depending on the location of the fire in relation to exterior openings and size of the exterior openings, an high velocity inrush of air may not be evident. Both smoke explosion and backdraft can result in deflagration, but not detonation due to (relatively) low speed which which the combustion reaction takes place.

    Can you provide any information or insight into the recent extreme fire behavior (backdraft) that occurred in Tempe?



  6. Blog Archive » Smoke is Fuel: Recognizing the Hazard | Compartment Fire Behavior Says:

    […] Smoke Explosion or Backdraft […]

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