Could mice chewing on strike-anywhere matches start a fire in the cottage?—Christopher Marks, via email
First question: are mice likely to chew on matches? “I guess like any other gnawing rodent, there is a chance that a mouse would chew into a cardboard matchbox,” says Gary Ure of Second Nature Wildlife Management in Gananoque, Ont. “A match head is pretty abrasive, so maybe coincidentally it’s just another object to gnaw on.”
Second question: are mice likely to chew on matches and start a fire? “I’ve never heard of this,” says Ryan Murrell, the fire chief of Ontario’s Township of Muskoka Lakes. Neither has any other fire official that we talked to.
Strike-anywhere match heads contain phosphorus, and “I would not think that rodents would be attracted to it. It’s quite toxic,” says Tom Sullivan, a professor emeritus in wildlife ecology and conservation forestry at the University of British Columbia. “Having said that, there is always a possibility that some weird set of events could result in a match being lit.”
Apparently, it did. We found a record of a fire in 1878 in Wilmington, N.C., where “the only way in which the fire can be accounted for is that it occurred from the ignition of matches by rats or mice.” According to the Wilmington Police Department, the mice could have chewed on strike-anywhere matches—presumably striking the match head with their teeth—or, could have scurried with them in their mouths, “striking some surface.”
“It’s a good story, but how would you even prove it?” says Murrell. In terms of fires, “the only weird mouse things I’ve seen is when mice chew through electrical wires. And usually with these situations we have enough evidence to know that the fire was caused by rodents.” (Electrocuted and mummified corpses.)
Time to do what we always do when we’re still stumped: ask long-time cottagers for their experiences. Cottager A: “I’ve never heard of this. I did master lighting matches on my teeth one summer. It took some work, but mice can be very dedicated.”; Cottager B: “I’ve never heard of this. Sounds like an insurance scam if you ask me.”; Cottager C: “I’ve never heard of this. Even strike-anywhere matches strike nowhere if you don’t hit them just right.”; Cottager D: “I’ve never heard of this. Perhaps because we’ve never had mice inside the cottage. I read Cottage Life and I know how to keep them out.”; Cottager E…well, you get it.
So, could mice chewing on matches cause a fire? Possibly once, in 1878. Then maybe never again. But there’s nothing wrong with storing your matches in a sealed glass jar. “It’ll keep them from becoming damp and useless,” says Gary Ure. “And at the same time, keep the mice away.” Or just use a barbecue lighter—it has a safety switch. Some humans can’t even figure that thing out.
Do you have a question for Cottage Q&A? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.