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Fire fallout no barrier to business

Timaru restaurant Saikou was closed for two months following a fire caused by clean tea towels that spontaneously combusted. Thankfully their SMARTpak insurance had them covered throughout the closure.

Asian fusion restaurant owners, Jacob Stonehouse and Ola Latu, were out for a family dinner celebration when their landlord called to say firefighters were about to break down their restaurant’s front door.

“It was quite a shock because none of us had any idea of what could have caused the fire,” Jacob says.

It transpired the fire had started from an unlikely source: a bag of still-warm, clean tea towels left in the kitchen had self-ignited. Fire and emergency staff revealed to Jacob and Ola that laundering sometimes fails to remove oils and fat residue from fabric. This can create a problem when dishcloths, towels or rags aren’t given the chance to cool down after drying.

“It actually smouldered for a good two hours before it ignited and the smoke alarms went off,” Jacob says. “The room was full of smoke, you could stand shoulder-to-shoulder and not be able to see the person standing next to you.”

Showing fire damage in Timaru's Saikou restaurant

Smoke damage is corrosive and can take a lot of effort to remedy

Mitigating fire risk

“When you either leave items in the dryer or just deposit them in a heap, the temperature within the fabric may increase significantly and that’s when you get ignition,” explains Tash Rankin, Advisor Risk Reduction at Fire and Emergency New Zealand.

Tash says that when washing items for commercial use, being present in the building when using a dryer and ensuring the dryer completes its full cool down cycle helps to mitigate fire risk. If the washing is still warm when removed from the dryer, spreading each item out will help to dissipate heat.

These tips don’t just apply to hospitality or food sources either. Oils and solutions used on cloths in establishments as diverse as health spas and furniture stores also have the potential to self-combust.

Learning from experience

Jacob and Ola took over the already-established restaurant from a family friend only a few months before the fire. Despite both having worked in the hospitality scene for some time, they knew nothing of the potential fire danger laundered fabrics can hold.

“If we had known that spontaneous combustion could be such a big thing, we probably wouldn’t have done the laundry the way we did,” Jacob says. “Now, we pay a contractor, and they drop off laundry each week. We don’t have to worry about getting it washed… it comes in clean and definitely cold.”

Jacob and Ola say that if anything is to come out of their experience, they want other business owners and hospitality workers to be aware that a warm tea towel is all it takes to start a fire.

Timaru Restaurant, Saikou

SMARTpak helped with recovery costs until Saikou re-opened its doors

Thankfully, no one was hurt in the incident at Saikou and the couple’s SMARTpak business interruption insurance, which is exclusive to Crombie Lockwood, was in place to protect their plant and stock, and their gross profits.

Jacob says he and Ola were covered for everything, from wages for their staff to the repairs needed to get the restaurant doors open again.

“But it definitely was an eye opener for us in what needed to be done… which was pretty much replacing and cleaning everything in the room,” he says.

The flames didn’t go beyond the kitchen but smoke damage is corrosive. Everything was either removed from the restaurant to be cleaned or disposed of, including all their wine, spirits and food.

“In cases like this, it’s like starting a business from scratch. It’s very stressful and we certainly were as busy, if not busier, than we would have been if we were open,” he says.

Preparing for anything

Tash, who is also a volunteer firefighter, worked alongside Ola and Jacob post-fire. Too often she sees first-hand the impact fire can have on a variety of businesses but says that Saikou was prepared.

The building, which consists of several other tenants, was equipped with safety systems including smoke alarms, red manual call points, and evacuation procedures to ensure everyone had been evacuated from all businesses in the premises.

“The thing that this fire really identified is how far-reaching fire can be. If you close a business, that’s people’s jobs and their livelihoods on the line. The flow on is huge.”
- Tash Rankin, Advisor Risk Reduction, Fire and Emergency New Zealand

“Fire is fast. Although it doesn’t happen often, when it does happen it can be quite catastrophic,” Tash concludes.

Published June 2023

SMARTpak      Client stories