Taiwan water park inferno: Spotlight on flammable powder that sparked blaze

A participant getting splashed with green-coloured powder during the Colour Run on Aug 30, 2014.
A participant getting splashed with green-coloured powder during the Colour Run on Aug 30, 2014. PHOTO: ST FILE

THE Color Play Asia event at the Formosa Fun Coast waterpark outside Taipei turned hellish for partygoers when a sudden fire erupted seemingly out of nowhere, injuring hundreds, including a Singaporean woman.

The question on some people's minds in the aftermath of the incident is: How did the fire start?

"This explosion and fire... was caused by the powder spray. It could have been due to the heat of the lights on the stage," said a spokesman for the New Taipei City fire department.

General manager Chen Hui-ying said: "Throwing coloured corn starch around... We had never heard such an activity could be dangerous," she said.

What is the powder used during such events and is it dangerous?

"Colour" events

"Colour" events, like last Saturday's event at the Taipei water park, are gaining in popularity, with more and more of such similar ones taking place around the globe.

They typically involve coloured powder, known as holi powder, being thrown onto participants.

At the time of the incident in Taipei, the powder was released onto partygoers as they danced in front of a stage.

During the Colour Run, runners will be doused in holi powder as they run, finishing the event covered in multicoloured powder from head to toe.

Colour Runs have taken place in Britain, France, the US, China, Japan and in Singapore too. The first-ever Colour Run in Singapore was held in Sentosa in 2013. The next will take place in Sentosa in Aug 22 and Aug 23 this year.

Holi powder

Holi powder originated in India, used as part of Holi, an ancient Hindu religious festival dubbed the festival of colours. It is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil and the arrival of springtime.

The festival is celebrated primarily in India and at places with significant populations of Hindus, and part of it involves a celebration where people douse each other with coloured powder. The powder has come to be known as Holi powder.

Holi powder may be made by mixing corn starch, water and food dye.

Corn starch

Corn starch, while normally a harmless, edible substance that is almost inert when it is in a mass, is a highly flammable carbohydrate and burns instantly when it is dispersed into fine particles, which happens when it is blown out during a "colour" event.

In such cases, the substance will be ignited when it comes into contact with a flame or high heat.

This is the reason why corn starch has been used in fire breathing. Fire breathers may fill their mouths with corn starch before blowing it out over a flame. This will result in a huge plume of fire being emitted.

The intense heat caused by the stage lights could have sparked a fire on powder that came close to the lights, which quickly spread to the rest of the powder in the air.