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By jdietrich 2019-06-09
Sparks are a major hazard in a lot of industries, to the extent that there is a full range of non-sparking tools made from high-strength copper alloys. They're most often used in the oil, gas and petrochemicals industries, but they're also used in dry and dusty environments like grain elevators and flour mills.
I have no idea whether this story is the whole truth, but it's perfectly plausible - in extremely dry conditions, a tiny ember can become an uncontrollable fire in a matter of seconds. The speed of a grass fire can be truly frightening. Take a look at this video:
The fire in that video was started by the heat of an exhaust pipe, but it could have just as easily been caused by a spark or a cigarette butt. If a fire like this started in front of you, how sure are you that you'd be able to extinguish it single-handedly? What if it started behind you and it got a head start of a few seconds before you noticed it? If you were dressed in shorts and sandals rather than fire-resistant boots and overalls, would you even stand a chance?
A moment of hesitation or distraction is all it takes to lose control of a grass fire. Based on the account given, I can fully imagine the desperate and ultimately futile effort made to extinguish a fire that rapidly spread out of control.
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