Toweling Inferno

The phone rang in my dark hotel room, and I picked it up, expecting my wake-up call. Instead, a familiar voice on the other end said, "Hi, Peggy. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but your spa is on fire." In the background, I could hear firemen's voices and the roar of an idling engine. It was 4:15 A.M. Pacific Standard Time, and I was in New York City on business.



When I made it back to California that July evening, I toured the blackened, stinking remains of our new utility area, crunching through the broken glass all over the floor. We'd just remodeled our spa a few months earlier. This 500-square-foot nerve center housed our supplies, prep area, and laundry, as well as our reservations office.

We were very lucky; the fire had not "flashed" and destroyed our building, but the smoke damage was so extensive that the entire utility space interior would have to be demolished down to the studs and rebuilt. Fortunately, the utility area was separated from the spa by a breezeway. That fact alone had prevented the smoke from destroying the spa, too. I recalled how I had tried to get the city to allow us to enclose the space when we did our remodel. Fortunately for us, the breezeway was considered a fire escape and had to remain open.

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On the bad luck side of the ledger, it turned out that our new fire monitoring system was not actually monitoring. The local sheriff summoned the fire department after being alerted by our motion detector, which was set off by burning and melting objects that had fallen. We were fortunate in that our fire department is four blocks away and that the Silicon Valley suburb of Saratoga, CA, is pretty sleepy.

The fire had broken out on a countertop in the laundry area. The "smoking gun" appeared to be an oscillating fan our housekeepers used to keep cool while folding laundry. Our insurance company's investigator took the charred evidence away.



We spent the next three months rebuilding, and with great fanfare and a celebratory breakfast for the firemen, we were back in business. One month later, I awoke to the phone ringing in the middle of the night. It was the alarm company. The spa was on fire—again.

I couldn't believe my ears. I sat up in bed, hyperventilating. I threw on my clothes and drove over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Preston Wynne Spa. The fire had started in a dryer, and it was just smoke damage this time. My beleaguered management team was truly rattled now. Amid all the operational disruption, they had been forced to do counts of all the lost and damaged property for the insurance claim, a tedious process that was also pretty depressing. They dreaded the prospect of having to do it again. The first fire brought out their esprit de corps—this fire felt like a punch in the gut. They were wondering aloud if someone was out to get us. This time, the firemen were aggravated. They started asking us about the oils we used in our massages. "We've been doing massage here for fifteen years," I responded. "Why would we suddenly have fires?"

The restoration company had us back online in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, we'd still not heard from the insurance company's expert about the cause of the first fire. This one seemed to be a dryer fire. I still hadn't put two and two together.

It was the week before Christmas when I received my third wake-up call, at 3:30 A.M. It was like a nightmarish version of the movie Groundhog Day. "No," I said, when I picked up the phone. This time I skipped hyperventilating and went directly into shock. "I guess that means I have to drive," said my then-boyfriend, master of understatement. But that third time was the charm. I was standing in the smoking wreckage of the laundry area with the fire chief who was now downright angry. There was no oscillating fan, no dryer, just a pile of soggy blackened towels and sheets on a counter. With a tremendous "duh!" we realized we were looking at a clear-cut case of spontaneous combustion.



But how? It took another firefighter to help us figure it out. At the time, the body therapy department manager's fiancée was a fire captain in another city. "What are you doing differently now, and what changed in or around July, when the first fire happened?" he asked us. A lightbulb went off. Shirodhara! In June, we had added this Ayurvedic treatment to the menu where a quart or so of warm oil is gently drizzled onto the forehead's Third Eye.

To make a long story short, we discovered that some of the therapists were mopping up the oil from the Shirodhara with towels, rather than letting it run off the guest's hair into a bowl. We found plenty of limp, oil-soaked towels around. Worse still, we were using sunflower oil, which has one of the lowest flash points of the natural oils. A low flash point means it is more susceptible to spontaneous combustion.

Most of us know that having a pile of greasy rags in our garage is an invitation to disaster. But few of us understand that the same conditions exist in our spas. That pile of greasy rags needs air to spontaneously combust, but not too much or heat won't build up. One oily towel or massage sheet alone will not combust. But pile enough of them up and you'll get critical mass. The laundry pile or laundry hamper provides near-perfect conditions for spontaneous combustion fires. You don't even need the accelerating effect of the dryer's heat. Your spa is still in danger even if you send your linens out. Spas that use outside laundry services often amass even larger piles of oily linens in between pickups.

Safety First
Safety First

A remarkable number of spas I've worked with have had a spontaneous combustion fire. Some of these fires have completely destroyed the spa facilities and livelihoods, as well. This danger affects every spa, and yet most of us end up learning about spontaneous combustion the hard way. If you think you can avoid spontaneous combustion without taking specific precautions, odds are good you'll be proven wrong.

The epilogue to my story is, alas, fire number four. At our hotel spa location in Los Gatos, CA, the laundry facilities are located in the bunker-like concrete garage under the hotel. The hotel housekeeping department processes our laundry, often storing it for extended periods between deliveries and pickups. Last month, a pile of oily massage sheets spontaneously combusted. Who received the rude awakening in the middle of the night? Every hotel guest. Fortunately, there was no damage to the building and no injuries, just a lot of charred linens that needed to be replaced and a lot of ticked-off hotel guests.

Upon inspection, we found that the housekeeping department had not understood the importance of using the special detergent we provided and that metal storage containers for the soiled laundry were not in place. This incident was a sobering reminder that our great safety record throughout the past 10 years was the result of sweating the details. All the pieces are in place now. I'm hoping everyone will sleep better for it. —Peggy Wynne Borgman us to enclose the space when we did our remodel. Fortunately for us, the breezeway was considered a fire escape and had to remain open.

On the bad luck side of the ledger, it turned out that our new fire monitoring system was not actually monitoring. The local sheriff summoned the fire department after being alerted by our motion detector, which was set off by burning and melting objects that had fallen. We were fortunate in that our fire department is four blocks away and that the Silicon Valley suburb of Saratoga, CA, is pretty sleepy.

The fire had broken out on a countertop in the laundry area. The "smoking gun" appeared to be an oscillating fan our housekeepers used to keep cool while folding laundry. Our insurance company's investigator took the charred evidence away.

We spent the next three months rebuilding, and with great fanfare and a celebratory breakfast for the firemen, we were back in business. One month later, I awoke to the phone ringing in the middle of the night. It was the alarm company. The spa was on fire—again.

I couldn't believe my ears. I sat up in bed, hyperventilating. I threw on my clothes and drove over the Santa Cruz Mountains to Preston Wynne Spa. The fire had started in a dryer, and it was just smoke damage this time. My beleaguered management team was truly rattled now. Amid all the operational disruption, they had been forced to do counts of all the lost and damaged property for the insurance claim, a tedious process that was also pretty depressing. They dreaded the prospect of having to do it again. The first fire brought out their esprit de corps—this fire felt like a punch in the gut. They were wondering aloud if someone was out to get us. This time, the firemen were aggravated. They started asking us about the oils we used in our massages. "We've been doing massage here for fifteen years," I responded. "Why would we suddenly have fires?"

The restoration company had us back online in a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, we'd still not heard from the insurance company's expert about the cause of the first fire. This one seemed to be a dryer fire. I still hadn't put two and two together.

It was the week before Christmas when I received my third wake-up call, at 3:30 A.M. It was like a nightmarish version of the movie Groundhog Day. "No," I said, when I picked up the phone. This time I skipped hyperventilating and went directly into shock. "I guess that means I have to drive," said my then-boyfriend, master of understatement. But that third time was the charm. I was standing in the smoking wreckage of the laundry area with the fire chief who was now downright angry. There was no oscillating fan, no dryer, just a pile of soggy blackened towels and sheets on a counter. With a tremendous "duh!" we realized we were looking at a clear-cut case of spontaneous combustion.

But how? It took another firefighter to help us figure it out. At the time, the body therapy department manager's fiancée was a fire captain in another city. "What are you doing differently now, and what changed in or around July, when the first fire happened?" he asked us. A lightbulb went off. Shirodhara! In June, we had added this Ayurvedic treatment to the menu where a quart or so of warm oil is gently drizzled onto the forehead's Third Eye.

To make a long story short, we discovered that some of the therapists were mopping up the oil from the Shirodhara with towels, rather than letting it run off the guest's hair into a bowl. We found plenty of limp, oil-soaked towels around. Worse still, we were using sunflower oil, which has one of the lowest flash points of the natural oils. A low flash point means it is more susceptible to spontaneous combustion.

Most of us know that having a pile of greasy rags in our garage is an invitation to disaster. But few of us understand that the same conditions exist in our spas. That pile of greasy rags needs air to spontaneously combust, but not too much or heat won't build up. One oily towel or massage sheet alone will not combust. But pile enough of them up and you'll get critical mass. The laundry pile or laundry hamper provides near-perfect conditions for spontaneous combustion fires. You don't even need the accelerating effect of the dryer's heat. Your spa is still in danger even if you send your linens out. Spas that use outside laundry services often amass even larger piles of oily linens in between pickups.

A remarkable number of spas I've worked with have had a spontaneous combustion fire. Some of these fires have completely destroyed the spa facilities and livelihoods, as well. This danger affects every spa, and yet most of us end up learning about spontaneous combustion the hard way. If you think you can avoid spontaneous combustion without taking specific precautions, odds are good you'll be proven wrong.

The epilogue to my story is, alas, fire number four. At our hotel spa location in Los Gatos, CA, the laundry facilities are located in the bunker-like concrete garage under the hotel. The hotel housekeeping department processes our laundry, often storing it for extended periods between deliveries and pickups. Last month, a pile of oily massage sheets spontaneously combusted. Who received the rude awakening in the middle of the night? Every hotel guest. Fortunately, there was no damage to the building and no injuries, just a lot of charred linens that needed to be replaced and a lot of ticked-off hotel guests.

Upon inspection, we found that the housekeeping department had not understood the importance of using the special detergent we provided and that metal storage containers for the soiled laundry were not in place. This incident was a sobering reminder that our great safety record throughout the past 10 years was the result of sweating the details. All the pieces are in place now. I'm hoping everyone will sleep better for it.

Peggy Wynne Borgman is the CEO of Wynne Business and the director of two Preston Wynne spas. Borgman is a principal consultant and seminar leader for Wynne Business and author of Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty: Spa Rituals for Well-Being Throughout the Year (Broadway Books, 2003). She is also a member of the Day Spa Association's advisory board. You can reach her at [email protected].

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