Do human bones burn up in a house fire

I listened to a fascinating story on a podcast about the Sodder Family (wiki version here:

TL/DR version, Sodder family home went up in flames on Christmas '45. Inside were the parents and 9 kids. Parents and 4 kids got out. The other 5 were never seen again. Their remains were never found. One report says the bones burned up beyond recognition.

My question, is that possible? I wouldn’t think a house fire would get hot.

Sure it could. And in 1945 that house might have been a tinderbox, all wood with empty hollow walls, maybe even balloon framing.

Here’s an article on wood combustion. It’s a commercial site so I’m not vouching for it’s accuracy, but it is in line with other sources that say a wood fire can exceed 1000F. A burning house is not like a pile of logs, it’s made of narrow pieces of wood with lots of surface area allowing plenty of oxygen to reach it. At some point it can collapse on itself turning the interior into a huge pile of burning coals. Cremation is done at somewhat higher temperatures, over 1400F, but 1000F should be sufficient to burn bones beyond recognition.

IIRC, the house collapsed into the basement and the entire thing turned into an oven, holding high temps for days.
How advanced was forensic medicine? Did anyone even try to determine if this chunk of black was a bone or ceramic figure?

This is another of those “nothing seen at the time, but let a few weirdos loose and all kinds of theories come out” stories.

Has anyone suggested that Elvis time-traveled from 1987 to 1945 and grabbed the kids for some perverted sexual games?
Why do only the aliens get to do anal probes?

My question has nothing to do with the wild speculations of the ultimate fate of the children. It was a question about house fire temps and the viability of burning human bones beyond recognition that should have a factual answer.

That’s a thread title begging for a “need answer fast!” tag.

It may be just the planning stage.

Well, if they would just turn down the damn stereo like I asked…


My house burnt last August … and in poking through the rubble for salvage, and listing stuff for the personal property claim, the damnedest crap was noticed. We had paper and cloth that survived, and we had metal objects that effectively melted. Let me pop some stuff up on photobucket.
Anart photo on the wall of the small bedroom. This is the bedroom the picture was hung in, see the shelf is burnt off the wall, but the picture fell down and is fine except for water damage but the hanger for a TV sort of melted execept for the part bolted to a beam. This is mrAru’s airpack, he didn’t have time to get out of the closet. Within 7 minutes the back wall of the house was starting to burn through, within 10 minutes the entire house flashed over [he wasn’t inside…] His n hers boots from the closet. Dammit, I just got mine broke in to being comfy … and a couple pictures in through the hole that was the front door. When they put out a fire, they chop holes through the walls, yank out windows and shove high pressure water hoses in. It turns the house into a giant snow globe. Nothing is where it started out. The place was a meter deep in crap - wet fiberglass insulating batts that fell out of the ceiling when the wood ceiling burnt, soot and ash from said wood, anything that burnt, stuff that didn’t or only partially burnt … lower three pictures, the center on is a rice cooker, the wiring is totally gone, only stuff really left is the metal cooking pot and part of the shell.

Now imagine a house that isn’t put out, it just keeps merrily burning along, it is entirely probable that the bodies of the missing kids were thoroughly lost - meat, fat and bone actually do burn at the right temperature range [spontaneous combustion myths aside]

I probably should have also put this in the worst fire thread…

Modern houses won’t burn like that old one did if their built to common codes. Drywall will slow the spread of the fire into the interior of walls, floors, and roofs. The bigger hazard in modern homes is all the plastics we have. They don’t burn as fast as wood, but can burn hotter, and off topic, kill you faster from toxic smoke.

As I noted:

  1. The conditions of that fire were unlike any that most people now think of when they hear “house fire” - that basement, plus the construction techniques made an oven.
  2. The “never found” may well be due to:
    a. the forensics could not identify the few chunks of bone which might have been left.
    b. Children have smaller and, at very young ages, softer, bones - they will leave very little residue. Hence: there really wasn’t anything left.

And: for those who wonder why, in 2016, there is a question about a house fire in 1945: C/T’ers grab onto all kinds of things. This story is one of the more bizarre.

Particularly as the initial ‘forensics’ team seems to have been the small-town fire chief and/or volunteer firefighters. Who certainly weren’t trained in forensics and probably had never seen highly-burned human (or any other) bones before and wouldn’t have known what to look for. As Wikipedia says, the search has been described as “cursory at best”
The second forensics team came five years later, after the basement had been bulldozed over with dirt for that five years. That they found anything was remarkable, and they apparently did find human bones, quite plausibly that of the oldest child.

I can personally attest to witnessing remains from a fire (a barn in the 1980’s, IIRC) with recognizable bones and tissue, although quite charred. IIRC, the body was found after the fire burned out (not put out, that is). I can’t recall a lot of detail, but I think the body was not “all there” and that some parts might have been ‘burnt away’.

With modern forensics we could probably determine that there were bones there even if they were turned to ash.

Since it has become quite fashionable to turn cremains into gawd-knows-what-all, finding a pic of what comes out of the crematorium is more trouble than it is worth, so I’ll leave it to those curious:

Crematoriums produce what is known as “human cremains”.

I’d challenge just about anyone to look through the result of 2 stories of house + roof which ended up in a concrete-walled* basement (read: pizza oven) and ID the human cremains.

    • if someone can create a basement without concrete or stone walls, I’d love to see how long the house remains standing.

As a fire investigator I have seen several dozen fire fatalities through the years. Typically human bones do not consume during an ordinary house fire. A house fire does not produce the amount of heat for the amount of time necessary to burn up bones. The meat around the bones act somewhat as an insulator. Sometimes small finger bones and toe bones will disintegrate however.

Isn’t that partly because the majority of house fires are extinguished fairly quickly by the prompt arrival of a modern fire department, and partly because houses are less flammable than they used to be due to improvements in building code? The OP is discussing a fire which happened in 1945. I’m not saying I don’t believe you when you say that 21st century house fires don’t burn hot enough and long enough. But I’m asking if things were different in 1945.

The fire in question burned for several hours before the fire department eventually arrived.

Fire department response and the flammability of modern houses vs older houses are not relevant if I understand the OP question correctly. The question was if bones will survive a fire. The answer is yes, even if a fire consumes a house and goes out by itself. A house built in the 40’s is mostly wood, perhaps some sheet rock, but more importantly is the furnishings. Carpet/rugs was wool or cotton. Mattresses were cotton stuffed. Chairs and furniture was cotton stuffed with horsehair, or cotton padding… (the point being there was little foam, vinyl, or plastics.) Wood burns in the 500-700 degree range. Cotton is somewhere around 300 degrees. I’m doing this from memory so figures may be off. At any rate the temp of a fire in a 40’s house will not burn hot enough, LONG enough to completely consume a body. Most crematoriums burn about 2000 degrees for several hrs. Even that does not COMPLETELY destroy bone. The leftover bones have to be pulverized.

I investigated a fire years ago in a small, wood frame, older house. This house was quite remote and had pretty much burned out. The fire dept was not called until a relative of the owner came by the next morning and found it smoldering.
The owners car was there but no sign of the owner so we suspected a fatality. Several hours later we found the body, still pretty much intact, under a pile of debris. Hands and forearms burned off as was the feet and lower legs, torso was intact and most the bones were there.

Wood - 1000F. I have my own word fired oven, that’s correct.

Crematorium - 1400F - 1800F

Children’s bones I assume burn faster and more completely than an adults. The OP asks about “bones burned up beyond recognition” which does not have to mean completely turned to ash.

Working on the WTC recovery, we certainly had remains that basically turned to ash (that’s why the project lasted so long - we were trying to recover the unrecoverable). As mentioned up-thread, the temperatures matter. For a while, we were at ~2000 degrees (melting our boots and such).

Wood burns hot, but without an accelerant, it’s usually survivable if you can get the heck out. Paper is a different story, as are a lot of the chemicals in both households and large offices.

These things don’t burn hot. They burn damn hot.