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Pyrolysis is the chemical decomposition of organic material caused by extended exposure to heat. When pyrolysis of wood occurs, the originally complex chemical compound degrades into more simple, but more volatile, chemical compounds. Further, the cracking and splitting of wood as it dries from exposure to heat increases the surface area exposed to oxygen, further aiding combustion. Pyrolysis explains why it may take years for a certain heat source to cause a fire.

Many fire loss experts have relied on this theory in finding that wood can be ignited by long-term exposure to temperatures below the normal ignition temperature of the material. However, some subrogation professionals have been reluctant to rely on the pyrolysis theory after the decision of the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Truck Insurance v. MagneTek 360 F. 3d 1206 (10th Cir. 2004). The good news is that pyrolysis is still a viable theory of recovery in spite of the MagneTek decision.

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