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Sunlight sparks fire inside N.Y. liquor store

Firefighters in Syracuse were wondering what would cause cardboard boxes holding vodka, whiskey to burst into flames


A fire damaged merchandise inside Geddes Liquor and Wine, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024.

Darian Stevenson/TNS

By Darian Stevenson

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — A strange fire at a Syracuse liquor store recently had firefighters and the store’s owner scratching their heads as to how a display case in the middle of the store caught fire.

On Feb. 5, the fire broke out at Geddes Liquor and Wine at 1021 W. Genesee St. The store suffered no structural damage, and no one was inside of the store at the time the fire started.

So what caused several cardboard boxes holding vodka and whiskey to burst into flames?

It was the sunlight, firefighters said.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Jairaj Patel, the store’s owner. “I never realized something like this could happen.”

Video footage from inside the liquor store showed two cardboard boxes — one displaying Pinnacle Vodka and another containing Ten High whiskey, suddenly burst into flames.

Is it really possible for sunlight to start a fire like this? Yes. | The Post-Standard asked a Syracuse University professor who is an expert on combustion physics and chemistry to help explain it.

Ben Akih-Kumgeh, a professor in the university’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, said there could be multiple ways.

Every fire needs three components to start: fuel, an oxidizer and a source of heat, Akih-Kumgeh said. The cardboard and alcohol could be the fuel, oxygen is the oxidizer and the sunlight is the source of heat.

Since the store’s main merchandise is alcohol, ethanol evaporating into the air could be a contributing factor to what started the fire.

“There could be some concentration of fuel in the form of a gas in the atmosphere just because of spillage and evaporation and a lot of other things,” Akih-Kumgeh said. “If you have any open alcohol in your store, you would have increased perhaps the vapor in the air, but you also have a liquid available.”

Akih-Kumgeh said that alcohol, a liquid, is easier to burn than a solid because a liquid can easily change into a vapor.

The cardboard is a poor conductor of heat, so heat could concentrate in one area and the temperature could rise in that one spot, Akih-Kumgeh said.

Sunlight focused on the cardboard can trap that energy in one spot for a long time, he said. Then the temperature might rise enough to ignite that cardboard with the air that is surrounding it.

“If you heat a solid it can become a gas, and that gas is fuel,” Akih-Kumgeh said. “Then, if it that gas mixes with oxygen and there is heat, it can start burning.”

The store’s owner said the store always makes sure to get rid of alcohol bottles that are broken or opened before putting them on display or on shelves when they receive shipments. By state law, they cannot keep or sell open bottles, he said.

Akih-Kumgeh said liquor stores can have fuel vapor in the air, even if cleaned or removed after spillage. Vapor increases based on how many bottles are opened or based on what spillage has occurred, he said.

If there is fuel vapor near the cardboard, and the cardboard is heating up, both can contribute to the start of a fire, Akih-Kumgeh said.

“Fuel is fuel,” he said. “It doesn’t discriminate.”

It was all caught on video

Patel and his family members — who help run the liquor store — watched the store’s video and were amazed to see the fire start. The store was closed at the time of the fire.

Around 8:30 a.m. that day, the video shows sunlight brightly shining on cardboard boxes in the store. Slowly, wisps of smoke can be seen curling and rising into the air from the boxes.

Soon, the smoke spreads within the store and two boxes, sitting side-by-side, can be seen smoldering, the corners blackening.

About 35 minutes later, flames broke out.

The flames quickly began to spread from box to cardboard box. Then flames moved from the carpet as the boxes broke down, falling to the floor. The fire spread to three other display cases, all in the middle of the floor.

As the flames intensified, bottles inside the store broke, setting off an alarm and alerting police.

Just before 10:30 a.m. , police officers responded to the alarm and discovered the fire in the middle of the store and called the fire department, firefighters said.

Heavy smoke was pouring from the store when fire crews arrived.

Patel said the store wasn’t supposed to open until 12 p.m. that Sunday.

Patel said their alarm system alerted his brother-in-law, who then called him to say something was happening at the store. Then they checked the cameras.

But that day, the camera shutdown due to the heat from the fire and the view of the store was hidden, Patel said.

Patel’s brother-in-law called a store regular who lived nearby, and Patel called the manager of the Dollar General near the liquor store. They both told them the same thing: the fire department was outside of their store.

They all rushed to West Genesee Street, hoping the whole store wasn’t in flames.

“I said, ‘Oh my god,’ because when the liquor store burns it is gone, everything,” Patel said.

It took firefighters 10 minutes to get the fire under control, and 20 minutes to fully extinguish the flames, said District Chief Matthew Craner, a spokesperson for the fire department.

Once the fire was extinguished, Craner said fire investigators were able to eliminate all of the intentional and accidental causes the department would normally see. They came to the hypothesis that it had something to do with the way the sun shined through the glass of the windows.

Then the video footage confirmed that hypothesis, Craner said.

Walking through the store recently looking at the damage, Patel said they feel lucky despite the store being closed for the next two or three months for repairs.

“We can handle 2-3 months, but this could have been worse,” Patel said. “If we were closed for a year, maybe two, the store wouldn’t have survived.”

Staff writer Darian Stevenson covers breaking news, crime and public safety. Have a tip, a story idea, a question or a comment? You can reach her at

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