House fires produce obviously hazardous conditions. Structures are weakened and collapse. Gas lines rupture, feeding fires or creating explosions. And combustible chemicals, especially those under pressure, tend to make matters worse. Often stores of ammunition will pop like popcorn, adding even more danger and drama to an already tense situation.
A news crew in California found this out first hand. A camera man for CBS, Nathan Furniss, was covering a house fire in Ventura when ammunition in the burning house started to touch off, as Kara Finnstrom reports. A ruptured piece of a brass shell casing flew from the home and struck him in the chest.
It is worth noting that this isn’t as dramatic an issue as Hollywood would have you believe.
At 1:43 in the clip below, from O Brother, Where are Thou, you’ll get a decent idea of how Hollywood treats the subject. The truck full of ammo goes off in spectacular fashion.
“Take cover boys! That ain’t popcorn!”
The scene above does pose an interesting scenario. If heated to extremes, a firearm might discharge a chambered round. The gun might also suffer a serious failure, too, that would prevent it from chain firing, like the Thompsons in the movie do.
The loose ammunition, though, will pop like firecrackers. And they will send off bits of shrapnel. But the gasses produced by the ignition of the powder will not drive the lead bullets out at lethal speeds. The expanding gas takes the path of least resistance, and that will either rupture the brass case, or pop off the bullet.
What gives a bullet speed is the controlled expansion of gas behind the bullet, in the barrel. The brass case is supported by a gun’s chamber. The bullet moves forward, out of the barrel, becasue that is the path of least resistance.
The terminal ballistics of a projectile depend upon a bullet’s speed and mass in combination. In a fire like this, the speed is negligible. Even light lead projectiles don’t go far from the fire.
What the camera man was hit by was a very light (though sharp) piece of a ruptured shell casing. It could be hazardous to an eye. It could even cut exposed skin. That’s about the extent of the damage it can cause.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary, or loud.