Burning Tide

Rob Edwards, a San Clemente surfer, lost practically all of his boards and wetsuits to a fire in his garage this July. Fortunately, the sprinkler system saved the house. While this was a tragedy for Rob and his wife, it was minor as far as these things go—no injuries. If you're thinking oily rags or a faulty electrical outlet, you're wrong. Fire captains from both San Clemente and Dana Point were unable to determine a cause, so they called in Jim Brown from Forensic Fire Investigations, and that's when things took a surreal turn.

The most plausible scenario that Brown came up with was that Rob's towel, folded and set on a plastic cooler, formed a suitable environment for spontaneous combustion. Not the towel alone, but the dynoflagellate-rich seawater (a.k.a. "Red Tide") in the towel. "It's a one-in-a-million chance," Brown said, but apparently the micro-organisms in the red tide have a linoleic acid compound that is the same as the land-based micro-organisms that sometimes cause fires in piles of fresh-cut hay. As the micro-organisms die and begin to decompose, they give off heat, and as the reaction continues, temperatures inside a pile of organic material (say, layers of hay or a folded cotton beach towel), rise to 190 degrees Fahrenheit, then spike to 500 degrees after an hour.

"The key," Brown said, was that the "towel material became the fuel load." The folds in the towel may have acted as a perfect insulator, so when the temperature spiked in the process of decomposition, there was a ready source of fuel for the fire. Brown noted that he still needed to run a "test-protocol" to confirm his theory.

"I hesitate saying it, it's so weird," Rob Edwards said of the fire that claimed 13 of his boards and eight wetsuits.

It has been an apocalyptic red tide year—a plague of chunky water that despite scientific claims of presenting no risk to human health, still makes this writer's sinuses swell up and push against his eyeballs after the briefest red-tide surf. Runoff from this year's unusually heavy rainfall, and our suburban penchant for lawns and golf courses and fertilizers to keep them green, may have affected the phytoplankton bloom, hence the huge and gory red tide with the subsequent die-off.

Whatever the reason, the red tide is here, and as I'm sure Rob Edwards would suggest, it's probably best to hang your towel on a line outside, or over the fence, rather than just chuck it in the corner.