This surely gives people another reason to listen to termite control professionals when they say termites are bad news: just this August, a house near Lynnwood, Washington caught fire and suffered damages in excess of $200,000. Fortunately, the residents were able to vacate the premises on time.

The Snohomish County Fire crew from District 1 was called in to control the blaze, and they managed the job in less than a half hour. No one caught any injuries according to the press release, and investigators quickly stepped in to study the remains and discover the cause of the sudden fire. It was then that a curious find was made: the path and origins of the blaze were tracked to a woodpile on one side of the house: a woodpile that had been infested with termites.

According to termite control experts and the investigators, the fire began from the pile of frass (termite droppings) or sawdust that the termites had created in their consumption of the wood pile. The frass had been left ignored for so long that it had created a pile of its own and then began to decompose, in much the same way a compost heap does.

As anyone who knows compost heaps can attest, these things require maintenance if they are to be kept stable. The enormous press or weight of the material on top contributes to the natural heat released by the process of decomposition. At the same time, it acts as a “lid” or “cover”, preventing that heat from being released properly into the air. As a result, compost heaps can generate a great deal of heat by themselves, simply due to the excess heat released as a by-product of the chemical reactions involved in organic degradation. This is why large compost heaps are regularly seen to and turned over, to prevent that heat from building up too much.

A pile of termite frass or sawdust needs to be cleaned up as soon as possible because it can start to decompose like a compost heap does, and gain heat over time. Even more than compost heaps, these termite frass piles are more likely to experience the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion, which was what happened with the Lynnwood-area home. Because the frass has such a low ignition temperature, it takes only a little time before the pile reaches the internal temperature needed for it to spontaneously combust, leading to a small spark, and then a flame.

Termite control experts warn that homeowners should get regular termite inspections to ensure that they have no termites—or termite frass heaps—in their property. Besides the possibility of these heaps leading to fires or sparks, there is also the structural damage termites can wreak on a property.

Written by Alan Ferguson

Alan Ferguson

Hello! My name is Alan Ferguson and I am an expert on the elimination of termites. He graduated in Harvard Business School, and now I care about people whose homes are attacked by pests.