MIDLAND-ODESSA, TX (KWES) - One of this year's hottest Thanksgiving dishes can easily get too hot and potentially turn deadly, firefighters said.
Deep-fried turkey has quickly become a favorite throughout West Texas, according to the Midland Fire Department, but often leads to explosive grease fires when cooking conditions "are off, even [by] a little."
"These fires will erupt very, very rapidly and violently," said Midland Fire Marshal David Hickman. "It's a tasty way to prepare bird. However, it can be very dangerous."
Standard turkey fryers consist of a 30-quart pot and require nearly three gallons of oil heated to a boiling point of approximately 350 degrees.
Water, which boils at a significantly lower temperature, expands and turns to steam within seconds of contact with the hot frying oil. Any ice or moisture in a frozen turkey will immediately change from a liquid to a gas upon being immersed in the pot. The expanding water particles then force droplets of oil out of the deep fryer.
"This fountain creates a fine mist of the very hot oil," a Physics Stack Exchange user explained. "This greatly increased surface area coupled with the already hot oil causes it to ignite, which then ignites surrounding droplets until the entire batch of oil that was displaced from the pot is a huge fireball."
The flash fires can reach heights of more than 20 feet, Hickman said.
According to Jimmy Ellis, Fire Chief for the West Odessa Volunteer Fire Department, two "simple mistakes" lead to nearly all deep-fried turkey fires: using too much oil and trying to fry an unthawed bird.
"People just need to read the directions on the fryer sets," he said. "A frozen turkey usually needs to thaw for at least 24 hours."
Ellis and a group of West Odessa volunteer firefighters joined NewsWest 9 to demonstrate how a partially thawed, 5-pound turkey ignited within seconds of being dropped in five gallons of 350-degree peanut oil.
He instructed his men to all wear head-to-toe protective gear and carry 50-pound oxygen tanks during the demonstration.
"This is what they have on when they go into burning homes," Ellis explained. "That's how bad these [deep-fried turkey] fires can get."
They also demonstrated to NewsWest 9 how the extinguished grease fire immediately reignited when a splash of bottled water was thrown over the pot.
Fire officials advised against deep frying indoors, attempting to put out grease fires with water and consuming alcohol while preparing Thanksgiving dinner.
Ellis said he plans to avoid accidentally sparking a turkey fire by staying out of the kitchen Thursday and having his wife cook. Hickman, meanwhile, said his family will purchase a pre-cooked turkey and smoke it with mesquite flavoring.