Is It Time to Change Our Training Yet? Part 4: Magnesium Fires
A small piece of magnesium in the stearing column reacts to water in Delray Beach, Florida. (Photo: Lee Junkins)
Lee Junkins, Midsouth Rescue Technologies
As we saw in Part 3, manufacturers have been forced to cut every ounce of weight possible, in order to meet the economic problems. One way of doing that is by the extensive use of magnesium. Magnesium is stronger and 1/3 lighter than aluminum and can be molded and machined into most any shape. Today manufacturers are using it for most all the brackets under the dash, transmission housings, wheels, and some as high as 45% of the engine parts.
As firefighters we know that magnesium is one metal that will burn and once burning is extremely hard to extinguish, but do we really understand the dangers of fighting a magnesium fire? As can be seen in the picture, magnesium has a very violent reaction to water. The reaction seen in the picture is just a very small bracket on the steering column.
We see the pretty flash as the water hits it but, notice the little sparklers in the picture. Each one of these pretty little sparklers is a ball of hot molten metal. Welders will tell you that these bits of molten metal will collect in any little wrinkle in your clothing and will burn through until they cool. Imagine having them on your bare skin, yet many firefighters do not see the need for full PPE on a vehicle fire. Let’s look at another aspect; these balls of molten metal are much hotter than our gear is made to withstand. These will lay in the wrinkles of your gear and burn holes in them, not only destroying a very expensive set of gear, but putting the firefighter in danger on the next interior call. So how are we to avoid this?