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Wood Chips Spontaneously Combust

A fire at a school playground in Arlington, Texas was reportedly the result of spontaneous combustion of the wood chip play surfacing. The school district temporarily closed those schools with wood chips on the playgrounds and will install pea gravel in time for the start of the new school year.

Wood chip surfacing at a school playground in Arlington, Texas caught fire in August, with dozens of media outlets around the world playing video of the incident.

The footage revealed it was not set by mischievous children, but by spontaneous combustion of the wood chips. The Arlington fire marshal told the local media a combination of climate is the culprit. The wood chips, over time, were decomposed by rain and the elements, then under the intense Texas summer sun the chips smoldered, then ignited.

The fire caused $35,000 in damages. The Arlington School District temporarily closed 20 school playgrounds. Superintendent Mac Bernd reports pea gravel will replace the wood chips on those playgrounds. The change out will be accomplished in time for the return to classes on Aug. 27. The cost to the district will be about $200,000.

While the Consumer Product Safety Commission considers pea gravel an approved playground surface, the American Playground Corp. discourages its use (and also sand), as they "do not adapt well to ADA accessible playgrounds, as well as the wear and tear to the equipment and to the children" (i.e., kids throwing the materials).

Playground World (Rainbow Play Systems, Inc.) says rain makes pea gravel "slimy" and worries about children throwing or swallowing gravel. has a better opinion of pea gravel: "Consider using a 9 to 12 inch layer of washed pea gravel around swing sets and play areas. Critters don't use it as a litter box; it drains quickly and dries faster than wood; it never needs to be replaced like mulch or wood chips; since it has a natural tendency to roll, it can be moved fairly easily during installation and to maintain proper depth under swings and at the bottom of slides; and most importantly, it's good at dissipating the force of a fall."

Thomas Jambour, EdD, a "playground specialist" at the University of Alabama at Birmingham concurs: "We've got about 8 to 10 inches of pea gravel here, which is the recommended amount under the around pieces of play equipment. When a child strikes the pea gravel, there's an indentation. If it's a limb that's going to hit first, so when the limb hits, it's pushing into the pea gravel and it can come in at any different angle. And the child's going to get the maximum amount of give."

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December 7, 2019, 4:14 am PDT

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